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Judges, District Leaders and County Committees: What to Know About Downballot Races

Understanding the not-so flashy — but equally as important — contests lower on your primary ballot sheet this election season.

June 21, 2022 Rachel Holliday Smith and Shantel Destra, THE CITY
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Logo for THE CITYThis article was originally published on by THE CITY.

You’ve probably already got your pick for governor and lieutenant governor, too. Maybe you’ve even figured out who’s running for state Assembly in your neighborhood.

But do you know what a “judicial convention alternate delegate” even is?

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There could be a lot of offices on your primary ballot this month that you’ve never heard of. (Get a sample ballot with this address look-up tool from the Board of Elections.)

We’re here to help, with a guide to the head-scratching positions that may pop up on your ballot this year:

Civil Court

If you live in Brooklyn, Manhattan or Queens, a primary race for Civil Court judge may appear on your ballot.

Civil Court judges hold 10-year terms and preside over legal cases involving disputes over $50,000 or less, a threshold doubled by voters last year. They can influence thousands of cases, and often serve in other courts, including Family Court and Criminal Court, or as an acting Supreme Court justice.

While there 21 vacancies at the Civil Court, there are only four primary races for judges this year, which THE CITY previously covered here. Contested races for the court are rare because few challengers run and the county political parties hold a lot of sway over who makes it on the ballot. Civil Court judges must retired from the bench at age 70.

Surrogate’s Court

Apart from the Civil Court contests, there is one additional competitive judicial race in this year’s primary election.

Manhattan voters must choose a new justice to join the Surrogate’s Court, which handles wills, estate disbursement, guardianships and adoptions.

There are three Democrats running in the contest: Elba Rose Galvan, Verley A. Brown and Hilary Gingold. The winner of the primary will advance to represent their party in the general election. There are currently no Republican primary or Republican candidates for Surrogate’s Court, BOE records show. These candidates are vying for one of two seats on the Manhattan Surrogate Court, the vacancy comes as Hon. Nora Anderson retires.

Surrogates’ Court justices serve a 14-year term in New York City and have a mandatory retirement age of 70.

Judicial Convention Delegate and Alternate Delegate

Delegates to the Judicial Convention are people who represent political parties at each county’s Judicial Nominating Convention, which take place shortly after the primary.

Since the early twentieth century, delegates select the party’s nominee for judges in the Supreme Court of New York, who then go straight on the general election ballot in November.

Only then do voters get to weigh in directly, but the races are rarely competitive in this historically Democratic city.

There’s been much controversy about the power these delegates hold. Critics argue the nomination process allows party favoritism — as argued in the New York State v. Torres case from the mid-2000s in which Margarita Lopez-Torres challenged the convention nomination method — but the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately sided with the BOE and the status quo.

Some have called for reform to the selection process so that it matches the primary nomination process for other offices where voters choose candidates in their primary, but have been unsuccessful.

Thus, primary voters this month will be picking other people to represent them in choosing the party’s judicial nominees.

If a Judicial Convention delegate seat is vacant in your county but you don’t see it on your ballot, it is because the candidate who secured one party’s nomination is running uncontested.

If a Judicial Convention delegate becomes unavailable, the alternate takes the position, so voters choose that person as well.

People cast ballots at P.S. 154 in Harlem on Election Day, Nov. 3, 2020.
Photo by Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

County Committee

Members of a county committee are charged with settling the business of a political party within a county, which in New York City corresponds to each of the five boroughs. County committee members are unpaid, entry-level party officials whose duties include choosing nominees for special elections and voting on party rules.

Members are chosen for each election district in a county, a small territory within existing Assembly districts that can sometimes represent just a few square blocks. If elected, county committee members serve for two year terms.

For many years, it’s been rare to see contested county committee races — because the positions were often hand-picked by party leaders and rarely challenged. But as reformers struggle to gain more control over borough party machines as THE CITY has covered extensively in Brooklyn, voters may see more primary contests for the position.

Amid that power struggle, THE CITY found at least 20 people who had been submitted for county committee openings by the secretary for the Brooklyn Democratic party without their knowledge or consent. One of those who ended up on the ballot without knowing is a 96-year-old Holocaust survivor with limited capacity for speech, his family said.

State Committee

Members of the state committee are elected officials from each borough who make up the voting body of the state-level political party. Typically, they convene at an annual convention to decide on party business and to nominate candidates for office, like this winter when the state Democratic party nominated Brian Benjamin as their pick for lieutenant governor — before he resigned amid a federal campaign finance investigation.

There is one female and one male state committee member elected for each Assembly district. It’s not uncommon for politicians already serving in office to be state committee members, as is the case with Councilmember Chris Marte, who is a Manhattan state committee member, too. In Brooklyn, state committee members also serve as district leaders (see below) and on the county party’s executive committee.

District Leader

District leaders are unpaid “micro elected officials” with a history in the patronage politics of 19th Century New York, as THE CITY previously reported in our guide on the district leader job.

In the Democratic Party, each state Assembly district has at least two district leaders, one male and one female. The gender split is left over from the days when women wanted a bigger role in local politics; all five boroughs keep the male-female rule to this day.

District leaders have a few prescribed duties — they include voting for party leadership within their county, helping to choose poll workers and being part of the process to nominate judges — but many often take on other tasks in their communities.

Those could include registering votes, connecting New Yorkers to services, helping local organizations navigate local government or advocating for policy change. They have no term limits and are voted into office every two years.

“They’re able to do a lot of things that are not really defined,” Richard David, a district leader in Ozone Park and Richmond Hill, told THE CITY in April. “A lot of it is what you make of it.”

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