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Op-ed column: It’s hard to be an informed voter on judges

Op-ed column: It’s hard to be an informed voter on judges

Judges make decisions that affect all of us, yet when it comes time to vote for them, most of the ti

Judges make decisions that affect all of us, yet when it comes time to vote for them, most of the time I don’t know enough about any of them to cast an intelligent ballot. I drive by signs in Amsterdam that say Stewart, Kramer, Mercure or Meyer for judge, yet I don’t know any of them from Adam’s off ox. The signs, however, at least let me know that there are judicial races this fall, something I probably wouldn’t otherwise have known until I got inside the voting booth.

Judges don’t have to run as often as other elected officials, and that’s as it should be. Many of them are elected for terms of 10 or more years. But even when one is up for re-election, they often run unopposed. For example, there are six Family Court races in New York state this November, but four of the six judges are running unopposed. Out of the two remaining races — in Rensselaer and Fulton counties — the only real race is in Rensselaer County.

At least in upstate New York we get to vote for our Family Court judges. In New York City, the mayor appoints them.

I search the newspapers and other local media in order to learn more about various judicial races, but for the most part, the media seem to ignore the judicial races. Occasionally, a race gets some coverage, such as the one between former Rensselaer County District Attorney Patricia DeAngelis and Robert Jacon for Rensselaer County Court judge in 2005, but that case was unusual in that DeAngelis had become a lightning rod through her courtroom histrionics.

Looking at web sites

Some, although not all, candidates have Web sites, which can be helpful if a voter wants to learn about a candidate, but I’m not sure there are many people who actually go online and look at a candidate’s Web site. None of the Web sites I have seen have a visitor counter so that you can determine how much interest there is in the candidate’s Web site.

In Rensselaer County, both Arthur Dunn and Beth Walsh, the two major candidates for Family Court judge, have nice Web sites. In many respects, they are almost identical, just as both candidates seem very similar. Both have represented children and parents in Family Court. Both are relatively young, married, have children, and both let the voter know they were born and raised in Troy. There is little information, however, that would allow a voter to make an informed choice between the two candidates.

Judge Tom Mercure, running for re-election to the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court, has a lot of useful information on his site. For example, he lists 10 of the more significant cases he and his fellow judges ruled on. The case he lists first is their ruling on a lawsuit several judges brought against Sheldon Silver, seeking a pay raise. Mercure and his fellow judges ruled that “there had been no showing of imminent harm to the functioning of the judicial system such that separation of powers principles would mandate a raise.”

Pros and cons

I wonder why Mercure listed this decision first, among the significant decisions he ruled on. Regardless of his reason, the decision makes me think I will vote for Mercure. But then I look at decision No. 2, People v. Roman. I am disturbed somewhat by the misspelling, but more so by the decision. John Romano was the disturbed young man who brought a gun to an East Greenbush school, injuring a teacher who wrestled him to the floor, and was sent to prison for 20 years. While Romano should have been locked up, many people, myself included, felt that the sentence was too long. Mercure and his colleagues upheld the lower court’s decision.

Hmm. Maybe I won’t vote for Mercure. Then I look at decision No. 3, where Mercure ruled in People v. Wilhelm that Wilhelm’s rights were violated when state workers interviewed her. Another good decision, in this case about a mentally ill woman who drowned her son in a bathtub.

I agree with about half of Mercure’s decisions. I am impressed that Mercure is willing to post some of his decisions, even though the list of 10 he highlights on his Web site appear to be selected in order to gain votes.

I wish Judge Barry Kramer had put similar information on his site. Instead, he treats us to two articles on basketball. While they are interesting, Kramer being a former Linton High and New York University basketball star, they do nothing to help me know whether or not I should vote for him.

I go onto other Web sites, but all I find is “Experienced,” “Fair,” and “Qualified.” If a judge wants me to vote for him or her, I need more than just some credible evidence that they are fair and qualified. I need a preponderance of evidence.

Still time

In short, whether on Web sites or in the media, the voters are not given sufficient information to vote for most judicial candidates. By the time this column gets printed, there will only be nine days left before the election. Hopefully, the media will drop some unimportant Halloween story and instead report on some of the judicial races so we can be informed voters.

Daniel T. Weaver lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

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