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A U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upholds New York's system of choosing trial judges is likely to renew calls for legislative reform, but even some proponents of change say their chances of success are slim. That's because the current system gives tremendous power to local party leaders, who select judicial candidates and often hold sway over state lawmakers.

"Party chairmen like the system, for obvious reasons, and people who run for the legislature are usually in a position where it's difficult to vote for something like this because their party leaders are opposed to it," state Sen. John DeFrancisco said after Wednesday's ruling. DeFrancisco, a Republican, chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In New York, primary voters elect convention delegates who choose candidates for the judgeships. Once nominated, the candidates run on the general election ballot, frequently without opposition.

Unsuccessful candidates for judgeships and a watchdog group won a lawsuit challenging the system, and the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that it is very difficult for candidates to get on the ballot if they don't have the support of party leaders.

The rulings said candidates who are not the choice of party leaders are excluded from elections by an onerous process that violates their First Amendment rights.

The Supreme Court unanimously reversed the lower courts, saying there is nothing unconstitutional about the process. The high court said the state legislature is free to change the system if it wishes.

Former New York Mayor Ed Koch — who was among a diverse group of politicians and legal groups asking the court to uphold the lower court rulings — called the decision a "dreadful mistake."

"The county leaders will now continue to basically assure the appointment to the (state) Supreme Court of their candidates," Koch said.

The state legislature adopted the current system 86 years ago. Lawmakers scrapped direct primaries for New York's Supreme Court justices because they didn't want them to be corrupted by raising campaign money. Other judges in New York are elected through primaries.


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