Thursday, December 21, 2006

New York -- Worst State Government Ever?

Adrienne Koch's post from December 18, "Three Men in a Room," nicely describes the vagaries of New York State's Public Authorities Control Board (PACB), noting that the board has moved beyond its statutory mandate to allow each of its three members (the governor, the majority leader of the state Senate, and the Assembly Speaker) to exercise veto power over publicly funded projects in the Empire State. Unfortunately, the "three men in a room" phenomenon is not limited to the PACB. In fact, I believe that it might not be an exaggeration to say that New York is not a democracy. The governor is popularly elected every 4 years, but there is no serious possibility that the other two offices will change parties under the gerrymandered system that currently exists here. Moreover, the degree of power that the majority leader and the Speaker exert over their respective chambers is, as I understand it, unprecedented in this country. The rank-and-file in Albany are, by every report that I've ever read, simply irrelevant in the process of creating legislation.

Perhaps democracy is over-rated, but I certainly am an unhappy member of a polity that is so ruthlessly excluded from the process of lawmaking. What about the judicial branch? If anything, it's even worse. The parties have been fighting fiercely to protect the system by which judges are elected in the state, a system that is so tightly controlled by the parties (Democrats in the City, Republicans upstate) that it has been held by a federal district judge to violate the U.S. Constitution. Unfortunately, the result of this will apparently be to create "competitive" elections, which will simply invite huge sums of money into judicial politics, a process which has already led to particularly ugly judicial elections in Illinois, Ohio, and West Virginia in recent years. Changing the system to one of merit selection (along the lines of New Jersey's excellent, if imperfect, system) would require the approval of three men in a room.

Pushing New York far ahead of the pack (or far behind it, depending on one's perspective), though, is its system of municipal courts, which go by the Orwellian name of "justice courts." As a recent series of articles in the New York Times has shown, these local courts are a sick parody of a justice system. I have had direct contact with this system. A few years ago, I was living in the Hudson Valley, working for a small college in a tiny town. When I wanted to pursue a contract dispute against my employer, I learned that the local justice was the maintenance man for that same college. My lawyer (who, by the way, was also my state Assemblyman) told me not to bother bringing the claim. At least I only lost a few thousand dollars. As the Times reports, people are being incarcerated without even the most basic procedural protections by local magistrates who are not lawyers and who have received exactly one week of legal training. Blatant racism and sexism permeate many proceedings. Proceedings are not recorded, so review is nearly impossible. The chief judge of the state's highest court is imposing some new rules on the system, but fundamental change must come through legislation. Which brings us back to the three men in a room.