SPEECH BY MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG ON ELECTION REFORM
FUND FOR MODERN COURTS/PENN CLUB
WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 10TH, 2004, 8 A.M.
As Delivered


Thank you, Fern. And Good morning. We did talk about having this breakfast at 6:00 am rather than at 8:00, and I know most of you are up and working by them and reading briefs or doing whatever lawyers do before they answer the phone at 10:00 am for the first time. I was joking with Fern before I could never quite understand a profession that didn’t try to match its hours to its clients’ business hours, but the law profession does seem to be able to get away with that. Being available at 9 or 10 o’clock at night may be great but not terribly useful for some of us. If I could convince all of you to come in early. Now I will say in all fairness to Cardozo he is in for our 7-7:30 meetings, he’s never missed one as far as I know. One time I did try to call him, he took a day off, and he was someplace he claims the cell phone service wasn’t good there. But anyways, it’s great to be here and I’m thrilled to get an award in Cy Vance’s name. I said to Cy Vance Jr., I just met, I never knew Cy Vance, he was one of those people that I read about in the papers. I grew up in a world where the only people that we knew whose names were in the paper were people who had their names either in the crime section or the obit section of the local paper in Medford, Massachusetts. And everyday I keep pinching myself, ‘You know, hey, guess who I just met.’ You can’t quite say that all the time but last night I did a talk before a film with a movie star both male and female, and I thought to myself, ‘I would never in any other job get a chance to meet these people.’ Now whether they are saying that this morning, ‘Guess who I met last night,’ I don’t know.

But anyway, 50th anniversary of the founding of this group, which is really one of the city’s important civic organizations. Lawyers, we joke about the number of lawyers in the city, but they really do make an enormous difference in every part of our lives and quality lawyers, lawyers who are not only intelligent but want to make a difference and want to work together and try to find solutions for the problems that society has are what separates this country and arguably- certainly- this city from any place else.

And as a chair of the Fund for Modern Courts, along with all his other civic and government posts, Cy Vance really was an inspiration to many of you here. Fern is right, Michael Cardozo did work for him and I’m thrilled to have him as hour Corporation Counsel. I keep reminding him he’s only as good as his latest victory or loss, and we tend to leave staff meetings with my warning to him, ‘Do not lose that case.’ So far he’s come through. You will find out very quickly when he is not, when he is available again to come and work for an organization.

Seriously, Cy was an outstanding lawyer and he distinguished himself through public service and unimpeachable personal integrity.  And he had another characteristic, which I kept reading about and everybody talks about, that I think is one of the most important things that a successful person has as a reason they are successful, is they are never too proud to learn from experience. They don’t have that, “if not invented here” attitude. They are willing to listen to new ideas, and when they have a good idea but somebody comes along with a better one they are willing to drop their idea and adopt the other person’s and give the other person credit. I think that was one of Cy’s great strength.

These qualities: the knowledge of the law, and devotion to the civic good, integrity, and open-mindedness are the qualities our administration is looking for in appointing people to the bench. And let me say at the outset that I think it is true that most of the men and women who serve as judges in this city deserve to be there.  But I think it is also true that “most” is not enough. New Yorkers deserve nothing less than knowing that every single judge has been awarded the awesome responsibility of sitting on the desk based on merit, not political connections.

The allegations of corruption, of cronyism, of political deals - such as those that have been reported in the paper over the last few years has been much too much. They really do corrode respect for the law among the populace and we can’t afford to tolerate even the appearance of impropriety on the bench, much less having people that are not honest or aren’t interested in deciding cases independently and fairly.

Mayor Koch, as most of you remember, established the practice of appointing only judges found to be by his term “well qualified,” and his definition of “well qualified” was having an independent screening committee say these people were well qualified and Ed said he would only appoint people from that group.  Ed, who I spend a lot of time with I can tell you even to this day he talks about that and shows great pride in that change.  

Appointing the very best people also means finding candidates who reflect the city’s diversity.  I am proud to say that more than one-half of all judges I have appointed are women- that’s to get Carol off my back- and more than one-third are minorities.  When you come in to court as a plaintiff or as a defendant, it is terribly important that you look up at the bench and feel that that person represents you and will understand you, that that person is reflective of our community and of our society. And our Mayor’s judicial committee has really tried to use that as the standard of picking people. Quality in terms of intellectual capabilities, compassion, feeling for people, and understanding of the law, and an understanding of the community and the people that they are going to have appear in front of them. Our Mayor’s Judicial Committee really has done, I think, a spectacular and I think it might be appropriate if I ask all the members of it to stand and get a round of applause.  

I just appoint them, they do all the work. So if you’ve got a friend you want to get to be a judge, call them, don’t call me.

Unfortunately, the Mayor only appoints Criminal and Family Court judges, not Civil and Supreme Court judges, and while I really am a believer in an electoral democracy, after all, I’ve run once and won, so I think it’s a great process, the process of filling positions on the Civil and Supreme courts is nothing less in this city than a sham. It really is a disgrace. If you look what happened last week in the balloting for judges, there wasn’t one single real contest in the city.  Not one.  That included “races,” people talked about races, some of the people that won were found by various local bar associations, “not qualified,” and yet they ran and they won and they won because they didn’t have any competition or because the public had virtually no information whatsoever about these candidates. It is not surprising that 30% of the people who voted for a presidential candidate on November 2nd, didn’t bother to vote for a single judge. They just didn’t bother because they didn’t know who these people were and they had just given up hope and no one wants to cast a vote for somebody they don’t know, especially when you read the press and you think these people may very well unqualified or corrupt.

Thirty years ago, as Fern mentioned, Cy Vance, tried to solve some of this problem with the support of the Committee for Modern Courts, and he led a battle to persuade Governor Carey, and the New York Legislature, and eventually the people, to enact a constitutional amendment providing for the merit appointment of judges to our highest court. The case can be made that merit appointments to the Supreme and Civil Courts is even more important - because it’s harder for voters to learn anything about candidates for the trial court.

 We must continue Cy’s effort, Fern talked about making the case, well we’ve got to do more than make the case, we’ve got to get Albany and the public to go along an make change, that’s what really matters. Cy had wisdom in his push for merit selection.  But in the meantime, there are some interim measures that our administration thinks can be taken.  

As Fern also mentioned, last year, in testimony to the Commission to Promote Public Confidence in Judicial Elections, I urged the state’s political parties to appoint screening panels modeled on the Mayor’s Judiciary Committee, with a majority of the members appointed by civic leaders, law school deans, and bar associations. And John Feerick was Chair of that Commission and a former Chair of this organization.  Cy Vance was a mentor to John as well, and I’d like to thank John for all of the things he does for the City. He really has made a big difference in this city. Right now you should know that John is serving on two special master panels, one will decide the Campaign for Fiscal Equity litigation, which is the money for the school system, and the other is helping the city and Legal Aid put an end to the years of court orders and litigation that have driven the City’s homeless policy. It’s probably not what John had in mind when he retired as dean of the Fordham Law School, but I think it probably what Cy Vance would have expected out of any of his disciples. As John and all of them know, when it comes to strengthening public confidence in government, it’s not just in the judicial area where we need to do better.  

Let me talk for a couple of minutes though about three other areas where I think improvements are badly needed and long overdue: ballot access, what I call pay-to-play reform, and reform of the Board of Elections, which has gotten a lot of press in the last few days.

First in terms of the ballot access reform, I don’t know how many of you know what the process is, but if you want to get the best people to run for office, we’ve got to make the rules easier, and simpler, and more understandable to get on the ballot.

Right now, it is a very complex process, it is just too easy for party bosses and their lawyers to knock challengers off the ballot for minor technicalities.  It’s hard enough to beat an incumbent without having to spend all your time and your money defending your petitions in court.  And there’s a game that’s just played, it’s an outrage. If there is one “i” that is not dotted, one “t” that’s not dotted, the candidate doesn’t get on the ballot or the candidate gets thrown off the ballot, but what is really worse is the public is denied a choice. And either you believe in democracy or you don’t.

These endless legal challenges that define elections in New York are a joke in this country, and they are the reason why it is so expensive, or one of the reasons, it’s so expensive to run here and why so many people decide not to run. It’s become a whole cottage industry of you don’t have to beat the other guy based on positions or your ability to serve, all you have to do is beat him because you’ve got a better lawyer that can get him thrown off the ballot. I think its time to end this “gotcha” kind of techniques where lawyers comb petitions to find some technical violation in what’s literally a hopelessly complex election law requirement, which some courts have found to be unconstitutional.

Let us just make it easier to get on the ballot by eliminating those technical requirements, reducing the number of signatures required, allowing all registered voters - not just those that belonging to a particular political party - to sign petitions.

The second thing is this business of pay-to-play, it is just the most outrageous thing. One of the reasons I supported nonpartisan elections was that it offered an opportunity to move forward toward these goals without waiting for action from Albany.  The voters for reasons that I will say I still don’t understand, rejected the nonpartisan election proposal and they rejected it by a reasonably large margin, but the truth of the matter is that the system we have is corrupt and until you find a way to end that corruption that is practical we can sit around and say that no solution is acceptable that we can always find something better, but the truth of the matter is we’re going to be here 10 years from now with the same lack of democracy that we have today.

In 1998 referendum before the voters of the City of New York was passed, and it was an amendment to the City Charter requiring that the Campaign Finance Board adopt rules and regulations prohibiting campaign contributions from those who do business with the City. The rules were to apply to candidates who join the City’s matching funds program.  But here we are six years later, and not one single rule has been adopted.  

Let me just explain to you what pay-to-play really is.  If you’re a telecommunications executive looking for a friendly contract, or a real estate developer going through the City’s Land Use Review Process, or a registered lobbyist trying to get certain terms included in legislation, or a consultant to a private equity firm competing to invest some of the City’s pension funds, you may be invited - or let’s get serious - feel compelled to make campaign contributions.  The parlance of the business is called “pay-to-play.”  And while it may not fit your legal definition of bribery or extortion, the rest of us, the public, understands exactly what it is. If it looks like a rose and smells like a rose, we all know that it is a rose.

And this has just gone on and on, there is a way to corrupt government decisions, it is making campaign contributions and it is not right and it diminishes the public’s confidence in government and it should be stopped, and the public voted to have it stopped and it’s an outrage, the public changes the City Charter and then nothing happens. And that’s the worst thing that can happen to democracy, the public says, ‘Wait a second, first I don’t have a vote and then when I get a vote nobody pays any attention to it.’ And it even gets worse than this because what happened was in the 1998 Charter amendment they also have a subsidy program with taxpayer money for people that are in the Campaign Finance Program, and for every $250 contribution from lobbyists that do business with the city, the taxpayers actually kick in another $1,000.  And this was maybe an unintended consequence of the City’s matching funds program, which was designed to limit the power of special interests, but the fact of the matter is it magnifies it because if a special interest gives $250 to a candidate, the City comes along and gives a match, another $1000, so rather than take away special interests, we’ve empowered special interests in a way that’s probably not done in any other place in the country.

Along with most voters, I think, and my argument that it is most voters is that the evidence that this amendment was passed to the City Charter, these contributions should be banned or severely restricted and they certainly should not be subsidized by taxpayers. I’ve been urging the Campaign Finance Board to implement this amendment, this 1998 amendment and so far nothing has happened.  And since the Board has failed to act, we have repeatedly asked the City Council to enact legislation to fulfill this Charter mandate. And I don’t think anybody in this room is going to be surprised to find that the Council and the Board only see bureaucratic and political obstacles, and they’re too busy pursuing other agendas than to give the public the right to really make decisions and pick who serves because everybody is afraid that if we start to really pick people on merit, maybe they won’t be one of those selected.

I’m not going to forget the voters who passed this mandate six years ago, and I can tell you I will not sign, they can override it, but I will not sign another campaign finance bill unless it includes provisions that fulfill the City Charter change that the voters put into place back in 1998.  

Even New Jersey – and we all joke about New Jersey – but New Jersey has adopted pay-to-play reform.  About a month ago, Governor McGreevy, this is true, it’s hard to believe, signed an executive order restricting contributions from government contractors. And the soon-to-be New Governor, Governor Codey announced that he’s going to take this a step further and close a loophole in the SEC rule that prohibits bond underwriters from making campaign contributions to elected officials who hire firms to handle bond sales.  New York likes to consider itself a national leader in campaign finance reform.  But I think it’s fair to say on the most basic criteria, restricting the influence of special interests – we have fallen behind many other jurisdictions, including our neighboring state.

Let me talk about one other thing and that is reforming the Board of Elections. The Board of Elections has got a lot of criticism in the last few days because there were long lines at the polls and some machines broke down. We need to reform the Board of Elections and most importantly, we need to get voting machines that make voting easier, quicker, and more secure.  

In 1952, 3.5 million New Yorkers cast ballots in the presidential election.  Last week only 2.2 million New Yorkers voted – one-third fewer.  So why did we have so many problems?  I mean if we could handle it back in ‘52 with 3.5 million voters with the same machines, why can’t we do it now?

Well there’s two reasons: First, the voting machines themselves, the ones that we use are more than 40-years old – and they are actually based on a patent by Thomas Edison that is almost 140 years old!

People say, ‘You know, technology.’ If you are afraid of technology, don’t get in airplane, don’t get in an automobile, don’t take an elevator; technology runs everything in our lives, but we have to have a mechanical machine to vote. Most of us don’t drive cars built during Mayor Wagner’s Administration – unless maybe we collect antiques–why are we using voting machines from that era I don’t’ think anybody can figure out.  These are technological fossils, and they belong in the New York Historical Society, not in the polling stations of this city. And in fact we can’t even claim we don’t have the money to do it because the Federal government’s Help America Vote Act – called HAVA - will pay for the State to modernize our voting equipment, train election officials and poll workers, and enhance voter education. And most states qualified for HAVA money in time for the 2004 elections, and bought new machines. A-ha! Not here in New York.  We are still waiting for Albany to finalize a plan that will allow the State to qualify for more than $200 million in federal funding.

So here we sit, we have budget problems but this is nothing that has to be solved by the taxpayers of this city, it can be solved by the taxpayers of the country. Now it’s already too late to have a new system up and running by 2005, which will be an election I’m sure all of you will come out and vote in, you have to think about that and who is running – that’s ok. It’s not going to happen if the State Legislature does not come up with an agreement soon, and even making 2006 is going to be difficult, but as last week’s elections showed, we should not delay anymore.

It’s not just money, however. HAVA’s money alone won’t solve the Board’s institutional problems.  Under John Ravitz’s leadership, the Board really has begun to try to professionalize its operations, and I think he gets a lot of criticism but we should commend him for the improvements that he’s trying to make, he is however severely hamstrung by the Board’s structure, established by State law, which allows party leaders to dictate hiring decisions based on party connections – or family connections – and not on merit.  This makes it very hard to fire incompetent workers, or to recruit qualified ones. And that really is a recipe for ineptitude.

The structure of the Board, like our method of selecting judges, is a remnant of the days when Tammany Hall ruled New York.  Together, the Board and the courts are the city’s last bastions of political patronage, think about that, we really have- we finally got political patronage out of the school system, and because a lot of the laws that were enacted after the city’s 1970’s fiscal crisis we’ve got patronage out of other parts of City Government, but in the courts and on the board, political patronage still unfortunately plays a very big part.  
Our civil service reforms have bypassed the Board, other states have adopted nonpartisan boards with professional staffs and we have not. And if we expect our Board to perform reliable, high-quality, good customer service, we need exactly the same thing.  

And as part of its consideration of HAVA, the State Legislature, incidentally, should also examine ways to re-structure the Board so that it can select people based on merit, just like the system of selecting judges that I discussed. It would be a wrenching change for Albany, but I think the time has come. The City unfortunately does not have authority over the Board, but John Ravitz has agreed to work with us and see if we can’t help in the small measure to improve its operations. There is no reason why the Board can’t maintain its independence and also taking advantage of the City’s technological infrastructure, for example, particularly 311.  There was much made in the newspapers about the Board of Elections not being able to answer their phones, but on Election Day, 311 answered 23,000 calls about the Board of Elections or the polling places, people looking for information, or people just calling up to complain. And for the Board or Elections to spend money to set up a separate call service the public one day a year just doesn’t make any financial sense.

I’ll leave you with a thought or two, In 2001, following the Florida election fiasco, my predecessor Mayor Giuliani appointed a task force to make recommendations for changes to the Board’s operations and management, and some important changes and improvements did result, including contingency plans for emergencies and expedited counting of paper ballots. But, as we saw last week, we have not done enough, so in the next few weeks, I will be announcing a new task force to build on the work of the previous initiative.   We just have to find more ways to improve the Board’s operations, increase its productivity, and hold it publicly accountable for its performance.  And even if the City doesn’t have the legal ability to go and change the Board there’s no thing to say that we can’t come up with some good ideas and use the Bully Pulpit to try to get Albany to make those changes and this should come to no surprise to any of you who I have asked to lead it. Michael Cardozo will lead it and I think there is nobody who we could have that is better to take a look and see how we can make some changes here. Michael was inspired by Cy Vance, and it would be a fitting tribute to him to carry on reforms that he really started.

The four reforms that I talked about today – judicial reform, ballot access reform, pay-to-play reform, and election administration reform – really are some of the more important good-government issues facing our City and they have real consequences for all New Yorkers, including candidates and voters.

And I just wanted to end by thanking everyone here for working to improve the integrity of government.  There is probably no better role model than Cy Vance.  It is an honor to receive an award named for someone who left such an indelible mark on this City, I will put it at home and look at it when I walk by and say, ‘Hey, that’s me.’ My name is up there too with Cy Vance’s -- only connection I’ll probably have with him but I will look forward to it. Cy was one of our great civic leaders as are many of you and it is an honor for me to be honored by you. So thank you very much and keep up the good work. God bless.