Queens lawmaker defends call for progressive chief judge following blowback from critics

Gianaris progressive chief judge
State Senator Michael Gianaris answers his critics who say he is meddling in the judicial selection process. (Courtesy of Gianaris’ office)

State Senator Michael Gianaris is doubling down on his efforts to have progressive candidates included in the process to replace former Chief Judge Janet Difiore, who retired in August.

During an Oct. 19 virtual town hall hosted by the Court New York Deserves campaign, a coalition of dozens of groups across the state focused on reforming New York’s Court of Appeals, Gianaris vowed to not let a golden opportunity slip away. The state judicial nomination committee has a Nov. 25 deadline to submit seven candidates to the Senate.

Last month, Gianaris and Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Brad Hoylman joined 18 of their colleagues to push the commission to propose candidates who reflect New York’s citizenry including diversity in race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, community service, nature of legal practice or professional background and geography.

“The Senate will be charged with taking up the nomination and voting on it,” Gianaris said. “Historically this has been a very pro forma rubber stamp process.”

Not this time. Gianaris told the panel that DiFiore was “the worst chief judge” to be appointed by a New York governor and that she 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.

He blamed the DiFiore court for undermining the redistricting process last April.

Former Chief Judge Janet DiFiore (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

“They’re the final say. We just have to eat it,” Gianaris said. “And so that is fundamentally the power they have over all of our lives. We get elected by the people. We go, we pass laws, but then the court tells you what the law means.”

He said now the Senate will insist on accountability in the confirmation process.

“We are going to start doing it that way now and hopefully we’ll acquit ourselves properly,” he said.

Gianaris dismissed criticism he received for putting his thumb on the scale in the judicial nominating process. The New York County Lawyers Association, which represents 7,500 attorneys, said the organization was compelled to address the “incursion upon judicial independence” represented by his remarks.

“Senator Gianaris inappropriately asserts that people who have held jobs should somehow be better judges than people who have held other jobs,” the NYCLA statement said. “Candidates for judicial office should be evaluated based on qualification and temperament. There should not be a political or employment litmus test for judicial office.”

Gianaris told the panel he was aware of the “blowback,” but his experience in writing bail reform law and standing up to Amazon when it proposed to build a headquarters in Long Island City had prepared him for such condemnations.

“Of course, the Senate has the power to advise and consent, and in an attempt to silence me I was told that I was somehow compromising the independence of the judiciary by rendering an opinion, which is pretty clearly the advice I’m giving the governor and the commission on this selection,” Gianaris said. “We are in uncharted territory because the Senate has never done this before, and the fact that we’re raising our hand and asking questions has really set the world on fire for some people.”

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