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Advocates urge Gov. Hochul to choose a new chief judge who will look out for the vulnerable

New york state court of appeals
wadester15 via Flickr
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The New York State Court of Appeals in Albany.

Governor Kathy Hochul has until the start of the winter holidays to make her mark on New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, by choosing a new chief judge. A coalition of criminal justice advocates want Hochul to pick someone who has a background in fighting for the state’s most vulnerable people.

Former Chief Judge Janet DiFiore resigned in August, amidst an ethics investigation. In New York, the governor picks from a list of candidates from a judicial nominating commission.

The seven names include the current acting chief judge, Anthony Cannataro, who if chosen, would be the first openly gay chief judge in New York’s history. Others on the list include Jeffrey Oing, a mid level appeals court judge, who could become the first Asian –American to lead the court, and Alicia Oullette, the Dean of Albany Law School with a background in disability rights.

Governor Hochul, speaking for the first time since she received the list of names on Thanksgiving eve, says she wants to appoint an “exceptional” person, who could someday even be chosen for the US Supreme Court.

I want someone who can do a number of things,” Hochul said. “We are looking for the caliber of individual that can be tapped for the Supreme Court someday.”

Hochul says she’s also looking for someone with administrative experience, who can help revive a “vast and complicated” state court system and deal with backlogs after the courts were shuttered during the pandemic.

“That has a collateral impact on criminal justice,” said Hochul who said the courts have “not worked the way they were supposed to” for the last two and half years.

The governor is not tipping her hand, though, over which name she favors.

More than 130 criminal justice and civil rights organizations ARE weighing in. They say the court’s track record, under appointments under by former Governor Andrew Cuomo, leans conservative, with judges often siding with prosecutors or government, and choosing to hear fewer cases that could have set precedents in defendant’s rights cases.

The group sent a letter to Hochul in August, when DiFiore first announced that she was leaving.

Peter Martin is with the Center for Community Alternatives, a group that works with communities disproportionately affected by incarceration.

“This court right now is really unacceptably biased in favor of the prosecution, the government,” Martin said. “And that needs to change.”

Martin says just three of the seven people on the list would help balance out the court. They include: Corey Stoughton, a longtime civil rights attorney who has worked for The Legal Aid Society, Judge Edwina Richardson-Mendelson, a Judge on the Court of Claims, who oversaw anti discrimination policies under former Chief Judge DiFiore, who would be the first African-American woman to lead the court, and Abbe Gluck, a professor of law and medicine at Yale, who was part of President Biden’s COVID response team.

The State Senate must confirm the governor’s choice. Martin says if Hochul picks someone they don’t believe would counter balance the court, the groups plan to lobby progressive-leaning Senators to vote against the governor’s pick.

“That’s our plan” Martin said. “We certainly hope we don’t have to confront that.”

According to the rules, Hochul will announce her choice between December 8th and December 23rd.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment and interviews newsmakers. Karen previously worked for WINS Radio, New York, and has written for numerous publications, including Adirondack Life and the Albany newsweekly Metroland.