Queens lawmakers among legislators demanding more diverse candidates to replace Chief Judge Janet DiFiore

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore speaks during Law Day at the Court of Appeals on Monday, May 2, 2016, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

State Senator Michael Gianaris and Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Brad Hoylman joined 18 of their colleagues in urging the Commission of Judicial Nominations to propose candidates with diverse legal experience to replace outgoing Chief Judge Janet DiFiore.

The senators indicated a strong desire for a more representative Court of Appeals and urged the commission to include attorneys with experience in civil rights, immigration and public defense among the list of seven nominees that will be sent to Governor Kathy Hochul.

“Court of Appeals judges must be defined by a lifetime of legal excellence, but cannot be limited to people in just a few, select fields,” Gianaris said. “For the court to reflect the values of our state, its jurists should represent that excellence in different areas of the law and a commitment to serving others. That is especially important for the chief judge, who not only sets the tone for the court but administers the state’s entire court system.”

Gianaris and Hoylman have led the Senate’s efforts to strengthen the rigor of the confirmation process for Court of Appeals nominees, including pushing for more candidates with diverse experience during the last court vacancy and leading substantial hearings into the candidate’s qualifications.

“Last year, the Commission on Judicial Nomination included several candidates with a diverse and professional background in selecting its shortlist for the vacancy on the Court of Appeals,” Hoylman said. “This year, with the vacancy of the chief judge and the direction of New York’s highest court at stake, it’s more important than ever that the commission select candidates with a commitment to ensuring equity and justice for the most vulnerable New Yorkers.”

The senators said past lists of candidates for chief judge have fallen short of the commission’s formal “commitment to considering nominees for the Court of Appeals with outstanding personal and professional qualifications who reflect New York’s citizenry including, but not limited to, diversity in race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, community service, nature of legal practice or professional background and geography.”

They said the last chief judge list consisted of three longtime prosecutors, three partners in large commercial law firms, and one former administrative judge — but not one civil rights attorney, public defender or tenant advocate. They added that career advocates for vulnerable New Yorkers have been conspicuously absent from eight of the last nine lists the commission has generated.

In a letter to the commission, the senators wrote that since the commission was established in 1977 it has recommended 241 candidates for the Court of Appeals fewer than 10 have been career civil rights attorneys or public defenders, and thus limited scope allowed former Governor Andrew Cuomo to stack the state’s highest court with like-minded jurists on the bench

“The opportunity to appoint a new chief judge and reset much of our former governor’s terrible impact on our courts can’t be squandered,” state Senator Jessica Ramos said. “This vacancy has already been mired in impropriety and scandal, and we need to correct course. This letter demonstrates a growing consensus among my colleagues that we can only vote to confirm a nominee who will move the Court of Appeals forward.”

DiFiore presided over a court that included a number of conservative associate judges, including Madeline Singas, Anthony Cannatoro and Michael Garcia who voted together without a single dissent among them in more than 60 decisions in the last year alone.

“For too long, our courts have been dominated by former prosecutors and corporate lawyers, and New Yorkers have suffered as a result,” said Peter F. Martin, director of Judicial Accountability at the Center for Community Alternatives. “Scholars and advocates have known from data and experience that New York’s courts best deliver justice and uphold New Yorker’s values when our judges bring to the bench the full diversity of the state’s bar. We are grateful to the 20 state senators who have called for a professionally diverse shortlist. We hope the commission and the governor will share this top priority as they consider the many highly qualified New Yorkers who have applied to fill the current vacancy on the Court of Appeals.”