Have a question for THE CITY about elections, voting and local campaigns? Let us know at ask@thecity.nyc with the subject line “Election” — or by texting “Election” to (718) 215-9011.

When you head to the polls for New York’s local elections, your ballot will likely include lots of candidates who want to be judges. If you’re baffled by those back-of-the-ballot lists, this article is for you.

You can check your ballot through the Board of Elections here and read up on all of the candidates in this helpful guide from the Daily News. But you should know that there are only four races — out of 22 total — where there are more candidates on the ballot than judicial openings available, meaning 18 races have foregone conclusions.

If you’re in Queens or Brooklyn, you may have one of those four competitive races on your ballot. Here are the candidates in those contests: 

Queens: Justice of the Civil Court – Queens County

All Queens voters can cast ballots for this county-wide position. Each voter can choose one of these two candidates: Sandra Perez (Democrat), Sharmela Bachu (Republican)

Queens: Justice of the Supreme Court – 11th Judicial District

Only Queens voters in the 11th Judicial District will see this race on their ballot. Voters will choose up to five of these six candidates: Cassandra A. Johnson (D), Gary Muraca (R), Karen Lin (D), Peter J. Kelly (D), Scott Dunn (D and R), Jessica Earle-Gargan (D)

Queens: Judge of the Civil Court – 6th Municipal Court District

Only Queens voters in the 6th Municipal Court District will see this race on their ballot. Voters will choose one of these two candidates: Evelyn Gong (D), William David Shanahan (R, Conservative and “Common Sense”)

Brooklyn: Justice of the Supreme Court – 2nd Judicial District

Only Brooklyn voters in the 2nd Judicial District will see this race on their ballot. Voters will choose up to six of these seven candidates: Rachel Freier (D, R and C), Sharon A.M. Clarke (D, R and C), Joanne Quinones (D, R and C), Caroline Piela Cohen (D), Timothy Peterson (R and C), Heela Capell (D, R and C), Saul Stein (D, R and C).

More reading: THE CITY previously covered controversy around Freier’s thinking on Roe v. Wade.

If you’re wondering why many judge candidates appear on multiple party lines (or all of them), that’s because in New York, we have “fusion voting” which allows “candidates for anything to appear on multiple party lines,” said local election attorney Sarah Steiner.

“A lot of the time the parties, particularly the minor parties, don’t have any interest — or have any interested candidates — in running for a judicial position, but they don’t want to have an empty space on their line,” she said.

Who Are These People?

In New York, judgeships are often preordained, even when voters are invited to cast ballots for those positions. Why? Here are the big contributing factors:

Nominees are often hand-picked by local party insiders.

Judicial nominations are one of the only patronage powers left for county-level political party leaders in the city

According to a statute that dates to 1921, state Supreme Court judges — who preside over life-changing cases ranging from criminal felony charges to high-dollar civil matters — are nominated by party delegates and elected at a convention without a primary. That’s why you probably haven’t previously seen the names on your fall ballot; they likely weren’t there for the primary in June.

On the surface, the nomination process appears democratic, with judicial screening panels and elected delegates who vote on which names make it onto the November ballot.

But in reality, it’s often the case that party leaders in each borough hand-pick the justice candidates — and even at judicial conventions, the choices for nominees are set before delegates even step in the room to vote.

That was the case in Brooklyn last year where a critic of the party was threatened with violence by the borough’s former party boss, Frank Seddio, for questioning whether he had misrepresented which nominees were backed by an absent party leader.

The people who end up on the ballot have often spent years laying the groundwork to get that spot — contributing money and free labor for the party.

As previously reported by THE CITY, judicial candidates can and often do spend years contributing funds and time to establishment candidates, political clubs and party executives before they officially make a bid to get on the ballot.

That can keep other would-be qualified candidates from entering the fray, said Noah Rosenblum, a law professor at NYU who studies the judiciary.

“We make it too difficult for attorneys who are motivated by a principled commitment to justice and public service to go into the judiciary,” he told THE CITY in July 2022, arguing that the process limits the candidate pool to “party insiders” and “people who come out of corporate law and have a lot of money.”

Few independent candidates are willing to fight the establishment for a spot in a real race — and the election lineups reflect that. In 2022, there were 21 Civil Court vacancies citywide but only four competitive primary races.

After judicial primaries, the party can “backfill” seats as they please.

Even after a Civil Court judge wins a primary, the party often shuffles elected justices around in a practice known as backfilling.

It’s a process county party leaders use to make sure their picks land on the court. How it works: after a Civil Court candidate wins a primary, they are nominated for a state Supreme Court nomination for the general election. With that move to the Supreme Court, the candidate gives up their Civil Court nomination — which is filled by the party leaders. Often, that new Civil Court candidate is the only name on the ballot in November.

Your Vote REALLY Matters

Never forget, not that many people vote.

And this year is an off-year election, which means it’s likely to see much lower turnout than in years when a presidential or Congressional race is on the ballot.

And even in those more well-attended years, down-ballot races get less attention and votes cast than the big-name ones. 

Voters often don’t know much about judge candidates, and with “party hacks” often determining the outcome, said Alan Flacks, a longtime newsletter writer on the city’s political party happenings, there are few surprises when it comes to judicial races.

“Party operatives, party members, political club members — they’ll be going to vote,” he told THE CITY last year.

Have a question for THE CITY about elections, voting and local campaigns? Let us know at ask@thecity.nyc with the subject line “Election” — or by texting “Election” to (718) 215-9011.