THE way judges are appointed in NSW remains open to political abuse and corruption, one of the state's top judges says.

"Australia is one of the last places in the English-speaking world to go to a more independent process for appointment of judges," Reg Blanch, the Chief Judge of the District Court, says.

"In my view we need a completely independent system of appointment, such that the government has got nothing to do with that process until such stage as a number of names are sent forward ... to the attorney-general and that's it."

The NSW system has worked well in recent years because of the "integrity" of the people involved but it lacks safeguards because government representatives are involved throughout the process, Blanch believes.

The Chief Justice, Jim Spigelman, takes a different view. Although conceding his opinion might be "completely different" had he been saddled with a "bad Attorney", he says the quality of appointments in NSW shows there is no need for expensive changes that might alienate good candidates. The attitude of many top-tier candidates for the bench is "if they want me, they'll ask me".

"I can tell you this: if there was an advertisement process, I for one would never have applied," Spigelman says. "I know most of the people [who] are now judges of this court would never have put their names up through an advertisement process."

The debate is set to play out during the state election in March, thanks to the opposition's proposal for a judicial appointments commission to shortlist and interview applicants at arm's-length from government.

At present the appointment process is slightly different for each court. Potential Supreme Court judges are sounded out with a quiet word in the ear, by the Chief Justice, the Attorney-General or the president of the Bar Association.

The District and Local courts call for expressions of interest and a list of interviewees is compiled by a committee which includes the chief judge or magistrate and the head of the Attorney-General's Department. It shortlists names for the Attorney-General, who chooses one and takes the appointment to cabinet.

Blanch describes himself as a "lobby group of one" in wanting changes to the present system, but several judges and magistrates supported increased transparency in appointments, particularly to the Supreme Court.

Spigelman concedes the arcane word-of-mouth system for Supreme Court recruitment might overlook some highly suitable candidates and admits missing one candidate who took up a Federal Court job.

The Supreme Court judge Michael Slattery defends the current system, saying he would find it offensive to have to apply to the government for a job.

"It puts me in a position where I am going to ask the executive for a favour, and to me that's incompatible with the office."

Joel Gibson, Deborah Snow and Elisabeth Sexton