The Power and Prestige of Being a New York Judge

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The New York County Supreme Court building

There are a few reasons someone might want to be a judge. The black robe commands respect. Even kids recognize it, said Emily Goodman, a former justice on the city’s Supreme Court. Year ago, she ran into a woman and her young son.

“She introduced us and she said to him, ‘This lady is a judge.’ And he said ‘Really, what channel are you on?,’” Goodman said with a laugh.

Aspiring judges may have a nobler purpose: the chance to do good.

“You have a commitment to justice, and that seems to be a way of reaching it,” Goodman said. “Everything you do impacts on somebody’s life.”

New Yorkers have the opportunity to elect some of the judges making those life-changing decisions. In September’s primary election, several races for the civil courts will appear on the ballot. But most voters feel stumped when they go to the ballot box.

“It’s very hard to find out much about who's serving as our judges,” said Tracey George, a professor of law and political science at Vanderbilt University. But learning about judicial candidates matters, she said, because they’re not just a neutral black robe. Their experience shapes the way they do the job.

A judge with experience as a police officer might be in a better position to understand the circumstances where force is excessive or not, George said. A judge with a business background might have a unique perspective on a contract suit. A strong bench has judges with range of backgrounds, she said, as well as race and gender diversity.

“There’s just better decision making when different perspectives come together than when you have everyone with the same background and experience,” George said.

About 40 percent of Supreme Court justices in the city are women, according to George’s research, and about 30 percent are people of color. But almost three quarters of New Yorkers are not white, and half are women.

If the bench doesn’t reflect the community it serves, Jones cautioned, it will not be perceived as fair. “There’s going to be questions about the process of selection, so it creates doubt about the judicial system,” she said.

New York’s process of selection is unique. Some judges are picked by voters, some by elected delegates, and some are appointed.

“The problem with the New York system is how much party insiders shape and control and dominate the system,” said Jed Shugerman, a professor at Fordham Law School and the author of book on judicial elections. For elected judges in New York City, where Democrats dominate, the party nomination is the end of the process.

“Whoever the democrats pick, that judge, that partisan insider, automatically gets on the court because the election is just a rubber stamp,” he said. 

Supreme Court justices in New York earn close to $200,000 a year, and serve 14-year terms. Because the key decisions on nominees are made before Election Day, party leaders are the gatekeepers for those plum posts. The power to deliver a prestigious, lucrative, stable job that “comes with a whole lot of prestige is a significant power to be able to bestow,” said James Sample, a professor of law at Hofstra University.