Calling Liberal Pro-Business Judges

Andrew Cuomo, New York’s Democratic Governor, will have the responsibility of making two appointments to the state’s highest court, after the recent death of Judge Theodore T. Jones Jr. and the planned year-end retirement of Judge Carmen B. Ciparick (reaching the court’s mandatory retirement age of 70).  A screening commission will submit a list of names to the Governor from which to choose.

Since selection of judicial nominees is the prerogative of the chief executive, few could rebuke Cuomo for seeking judges in his own likeness. The Governor may prefer to appoint judges with liberal political, religious or social views without regard to other factors, such as a judge’s attitudes toward business.

Yet selections should be guided by the public interest, which may mean using broader criteria. As an extreme example, Mario Cuomo, when he was New York’s governor, deliberately appointed both Democratic and Republican judges to the court on the grounds that quality and balance were more important than quantity and ideology. Given New York’s role as a leading center of international commerce, however, there is a good case that the public interest calls for judges who understand the needs, values and realities of business.

When business people make contracts in New York, they want to know that the courts will uphold them as written and not rewrite them based on a judge’s notions of what is good for the parties. When corporations are formed in the state, entrepreneurs need flexibility and deference without the fear that courts will second-guess how they organized their companies or their business judgments. Judges who understand such business realities reinforce New York’s appeal as a commercial center and may be classified as “pro-business.”

Critics of the Supreme Court have politicized the concept by associating it with conservative thought: Republican justices are portrayed as pro-business, Democrats anti-business. Such an environment begs the question whether there is such a thing as a liberal judge who is also pro-business.

There is not necessarily anything conservative or liberal about being pro-business. True, two justices on the far left, William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall, showed a strong anti-business ideology. But other Democrats, including John Paul Stevens and Byron White, are not so readily classified, and Stephen Breyer’s opinions are quite business-friendly. Furthermore, many Republican justices, such as Sandra Day O’Connor and Potter Stewart, were not invariably pro-business.

The same has been true among judges on the New York Court of Appeals. Leading examples are former Chief Judges Stanley Fuld and Judith Kaye. Fuld was a progressive with Dewey-Republican leanings; Kaye is a Democrat with practicality and common sense. Fuld wrote an influential opinion (Walkovsky) upholding limited liability for corporate shareholders even when a business was structured for that sole purpose. Kaye wrote the important opinion (Levandusky)  that applied the deferential business judgment rule to decisions made by the boards of co-operative homeowners’ associations.

The screening commission and the Governor would do well to look at a class of jurists: experienced business lawyers. Alas, other than Robert S. Smith, the judges on New York’s Court of Appeals lack such experience.  Governor Cuomo has a chance to correct that deficiency, even while appointing judges who share his Democratic values.

Co-Op readers can help by leaving suggested nominees on the Comments section below!

Hat Tips: Stephen Bainbridge, Lester Brickman, Stephanie Cuba, Jeffrey Manns, John McGinnis and Stewart Sterk.

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