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NY judges won’t handle big campaign donors’ cases

ALBANY — Citing growing concern over the escalating influence of money in judicial elections, New York’s Administrative Board of the Courts is prohibiting case assignments to elected judges involving their big campaign contributors.

Judicial officials said Tuesday that New York is the first state to systematically address the issue of money in judicial elections through administrative actions. Many of the donors to candidates running for judgeships are lawyers who practice in those courts.

The board’s final rules, which apply to nearly 1,000 elected judges statewide, take effect July 15 and apply to donations after that. There are exceptions for emergencies. They also give opposing parties in a case the opportunity to waive a judge’s disqualification.

“While campaign contributions are very much part of the constitutionally established process by which many New York judges are elected, the new rule will go a long way toward addressing the appearance of conflict that may arise when a judge is assigned a case involving contributors,” said New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. The administrative board, which considered public comments on the proposal, consists of Lippman and the presiding justices of the state’s four Appellate Divisions.

The rules prohibit assigning cases to a judge who has received $2,500 or more in contributions within the previous two years from any lawyer or party in the case. The threshold is $3,500 from multiple plaintiffs, or defendants, or from an attorney and his law firm.

Currently, judges have an ethical duty to remain unaware of donors and stay impartial or recuse themselves from cases.

“This rule takes important steps toward protecting the integrity of the judicial process while avoiding judges being forced to address recusal motions regarding contributions to their campaigns,” said Roger Maldonado, who chairs the New York City Bar Association’s Council on Judicial Administration.

New York court officials cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2009 ruling that a justice on West Virginia’s top court should have recused himself from a case involving coal company executives who gave him large campaign donations, noting such contributions can create “a serious risk of actual bias.”

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