About 15 years ago I represented a white woman in a custody dispute with her former husband, a black man. My client was concerned that if the judge were a person of color, s/he would be prejudiced against her.
At that time, there were no judges of color to be found in the Capital District, so I said, “I don’t see that as a problem.” Was I going to tell the mother of black children that being a judge was not a possibility for them? Sadly, all these years later, that county still does not have any judges of color.
The tragic “police involved” death of George Floyd, and other men and women of color, has brought to light many issues regarding the treatment of minorities in the justice system.
If we want judges to reflect the community make up, we need to look at the pool of potential judges- lawyers. Even though by the time I was in law school in the 80’s women had made enough of an inroad to make up almost half of the law students, there was only a handful of minority students.
When I go to Albany Law School now, the class composition reflects the United Nations, with a wide swath of men and woman students. As these students mature into their careers, we at least will have the option (and hopeful opportunity) to select judges from many backgrounds.
Judges in New York State are elected and therefore becoming a judge is a political process. In counties dominated by one party, it is unusual to have a contested general election. Therefore, if a candidate is opposing the political party’s choice, s/he needs to run in a primary election. As we are just coming off the heels of one, we should be aware that primaries are particularly important, and how essential it is to vote in them.
Minority judges should not just be judges that reflect the area’s racial makeup, but also ethnic and religious. I am hard pressed to think of any judges in this area that are non-Christian, whereas many religions are practiced in our community.
Supreme Court judges are elected by District. The Third Judicial District consists of Albany, Columbia, Greene, Rensselaer, Schoharie, Sullivan & Ulster counties. There is a nominating convention where the candidate is selected. This is still a relatively closed process. In many districts, one party may dominate so that even if there is a contested general election, the majority party’s candidate wins.
Judicial candidates cannot campaign on issues, they are basically limited to discussing themselves and general court administration. However, many groups do hold forums to introduce candidates which are, sadly, poorly attended.
For the justice system to work best for everyone, we all need to be actively involved and it is heartening to see so much interest throughout the world on these issues.