THE LEGISLATOR’S LOOPHOLE: Wolfe uses politics to assist judicial campaign

Most candidates would be disqualified but politicians get away with it

STAFF EDITORIAL ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES

This year’s Democratic primary for Rockland County Surrogate Court justice has exposed an obscure but real flaw in the rule book that governs New York State judicial campaigns.

It is well known that judicial candidates are restricted in their campaign activities because their position is meant to rise above politics. The candidates vie for votes by convincing the public they possess the character, experience and understanding of the law to be a judge.

There are no political platforms or attack ads. In fact, judicial candidates cannot refer to their political beliefs at all.

There is a glaring exception to this overarching maxim.

If the candidate is a serving politician they can say whatever they want about politics within their role as politician. It is their job, after all.

Reality, however, demonstrates that it does not even take a particularly clever politician to exploit the political arena to assist their judicial campaign. This is expressly against the spirit of the judicial campaign rulebook!

Take County Legislator Alden Wolfe, for example. Wolfe is facing off this very evening against New City attorney Keith Cornell for the Surrogate Court justice position.

In the past week Wolfe has unleashed press releases, proposed laws and announced declarations of belief all political in nature.
On September 7, Wolfe proposed “human rights” county legislation that would broaden the definition of discrimination, increase penalties for employers who infringe on the rights of their workers and create or expand several other new categories. The county law goes beyond federal and state rules.

Not satisfied with this splash of publicity free advertising, just one day before the election Wolfe summoned the Legislature’s communications director to write a press release announcing the legislator supports the New York Health Act, a universal single payer health care system currently under debate in Albany.

A cynic might think Wolfe took these strong liberal positions right before his judicial election in order to sway the hearts of liberal Democrats turning out to vote in the primary. That would be against the spirit of the rules, however, so it must be a coincidence.

Meanwhile, the law has barred his opponent from even raising the question whether Wolfe has inappropriately used politics to increase his profile in the judicial race.

The bottom line is Wolfe and any other politician running for judge has a leg up in their campaign. Politicians can not so discreetly court voters using political hooks, while candidates like Cornell, an attorney, have no choice but to keep mum. In fact, so mum do the rules require a judicial candidate to be, that neither Cornell nor anyone from his campaign would even comment on this story.

What do you think readers? Should politicians who want to be judges be able to exploit their position while their opponents are thoroughly constrained? Has Wolfe played fair or are his actions pushing the line?