More than 110 organizations penned a letter to Gov. Kathy Hochul on Monday, urging her to nominate a new chief judge to the Court of Appeals with qualities who will prioritize protecting New York's most vulnerable populations, citing a culture of dysfunction within the state court system.
The letter calls on the governor to take advantage of the opportunity to appoint a new chief judge after Chief Judge Janet DiFiore resigned in June, announcing she would leave her post as head of the state courts and member of the highest Court of Appeals at the end of August.
Organizations from around the state charged Hochul with the need for a new chief judge for the Court of Appeals who is not a former prosecutor and bring a diversity of experience to the role and is committed to upholding family and privacy rights on the heels of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to overturn the state's concealed carry law and Roe v. Wade.
"We urge you to nominate a thoughtful, principled lawyer who will safeguard New Yorkers’ rights, bring independence and a demonstrated appreciation for the law’s power to protect the most vulnerable, and defend our democracy in the challenging years ahead," according to the letter.
Hochul will select a nominee from a slate of candidates rated by a judicial nomination commission. Senators will vote to confirm or deny them.
Monday's letter was organized by Center for Community Alternatives and signed by hundreds of civil rights, housing groups, immigrant advocacy and service organizations, legal service providers, labor unions and faith organizations.
They also asked Hochul to choose someone who understands the role of the chief judge's administrative powers within the criminal justice system. DiFiore, a former Westchester County district attorney and Republican turned Democrat appointed by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo and confirmed in 2016, presided over a consevative majority bloc in the state's highest court, evident from the Harkenrider v. Hochul decision this spring to toss out the Legislature-drawn redistricting maps for partisan gerrymandering.
The Court of Appeals heard fewer cases, and wrote fewer and shorter decisions, under DiFiore, according to the letter.
Organizations pressed Hochul her nominee must also be committed to a proper separation of powers within the courts and to independently interpret the New York Constitution.
"It is time to put our courts back on the path to protecting vulnerable New Yorkers," organizations wrote in the letter. "In replacing Chief Judge DiFiore as our state’s Chief Judge and as a judge on the Court of Appeals, we call on you to select a nominee who meets all the criteria above—bringing much-needed expertise and professional experience, independence from but respect for the elected branches, and proven commitment to protecting individual rights—and who will further, not hinder, your goal and responsibility as governor to protect the people of our state."
Gov. Hochul's office referred to comments the governor made July 13 about a potential new direction for the court
"I want to get the best jurist I can find in the state of New York," Hochul said last month. "Regardless of any predispositions, a judge is expected to look at every case that comes before them with a balanced eye. We saw what happened in the Supreme Court, when there was an intentionality behind selecting people who had a certain predisposition and look where we are today. So, I'm going to find someone who's a thoughtful individual, someone who's well regarded in the legal community."
The governor stressed how the process with the judicial nomination commission is in the early stages of soliciting applications, and she will not be involved for some time.
"They have up to four months to put forth seven names to me to consider, so that is the narrow universe that I'll be able to consider," she added. "I'm hopeful for a transformational person who will really see the power that's invested in them, but also to do it in a thoughtful way that upholds the highest legal standards. That's what I'm looking for."