Historical Background of Merit Selection
In the earliest days of the United States, selection of judges
conformed to the English tradition of appointment. In fact, New
York established what is perhaps the nation's very first merit selection
system: At its first constitutional convention in 1777, it conferred
the authority to appoint judges upon a Council of Appointment. In
1821, the second constitutional convention abolished the Council
and transferred the power of judicial appointment to the governor.
By the middle of the 19th century, citizens across the country
had become wary of judges that they regarded as too closely identified
with the upper classes. In 1846, New York became the second state
(Mississippi was the first) to abandon appointment entirely, in
favor of an wholly elected judiciary.
However, New Yorkers soon grew uneasy with a pure elective process.
Partisan political machines began to dominate the elective process,
including judicial elections. Charges of abuse of power and judicial
corruption grew, and by the end of the 19th century, change was
again afoot. In 1894, the authority to appoint justices to the Appellate
Division was conferred on the governor. The Mayor of New York City
was also granted power to appoint judges to the New York City Criminal
The backlash against elected judges was not confined to New York.
In the early part of this century, a group of leaders of the bench
and bar founded the American Judicature Society (AJS), a national
organization that still exists today. The mission of AJS was to
improve the administration of justice, in large part, by advocating
the institution of merit selection. Finally, in 1940, Missouri became
the first state to adopt a real merit selection system, leading
to merit selection's misleading nickname of "the Missouri Plan."
New York did not follow suit. However, in 1949, it did grant authority
to the governor to appoint judges to the Court of Claims. Finally,
in 1977, New York voters approved a state constitutional amendment
that provided for merit selection of the judges of the Court of
Appeals, New York's highest court. Thanks to an executive order
implemented by Mayor Koch, and continued by Mayor Dinkins and Mayor
Giuliani, judges of the Family and Criminal Courts in New York City
are chosen via a merit selection process. Efforts continue to institute
a merit selection process for all judges in the State of New York.