The issue in this case is the constitutionality of an elaborate and complex electoral regime that governs the election of justices in New York State. The electoral regime, known as the “judicial convention system,” requires judicial candidates to have a certain number of supporting delegates in order to be nominated. However, if one wants to be a delegate, one must serve as an official in an Assembly District. In addition, the political parties are able to decide the required number of delegates from each Assembly District. Thus, political parties are able to manipulate the system and ensure that their desired candidates will be successful.
In late 2004, prospective candidates, including Margarita Lopez Torres, filed suit in District Court. The plaintiffs claimed that the system violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments by depriving the voters their right to choose candidates for judicial positions. On January 27, 2006, the Court found with the plaintiffs, deciding that the judicial convention system favored the judicial incumbents and amounted to a series of burdensome requirements for insurgent justices. Therefore, the Court ruled the system was unconstitutional and granted the request for a preliminary injunction. The defendants appealed the decision to the United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit.
On May 16, 2006, the NYCLU filed an amicus curiae brief in support of the plaintiffs. The brief argued that in order to defend the fundamental rights of electoral participation, the Second Circuit must affirm the District Court’s decision. On Aug. 30, 2006, the Second Circuit sided with the plaintiffs and upheld the District Court’s decision. The defendants appealed to the United States Supreme Court. On Feb. 20, 2007, the Supreme Court granted the defendants petition for a writ of certiorari and agreed to hear the case. The NYCLU and ACLU filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court in support of the plaintiffs. The brief observed that the U.S. Constitution does not require the State of New York to hold judicial elections, but since the state established elections for Supreme Court judges, it is obliged to provide for a fair and accessible electoral process. The brief further argued that the liability decision of the Court of Appeals in this case is amply supported by Supreme Court precedent. The case was argued before the Supreme Court on Oct. 3, 2007.
The Supreme Court unanimously upheld the judicial convention system in a ruling issued on Jan. 16, 2008. The court decided that a political party has a First Amendment right to limit its membership as it wishes and to have a candidate-selection process that will in its view produce a nominee who best represents its political platform.
United States Supreme Court, No. 06-766 (amicus)