Nominations to New York's Court of Appeals do not usually attract the same kind of fanfare or scrutiny that a U.S. Supreme Court pick gets at the federal level.
But increasingly, advocates and state lawmakers are viewing Gov. Kathy Hochul's pending nomination to lead the state's top court and its sprawling court system as a consequential one as she prepares to start her four-year term in January.
"If New Yorkers are trying to appreciate how much this matters, they can think about the U.S. Supreme Court as an analogue and recognize that what the Court of Appeals does affects the same sweep of life and law that the Supreme Court does," said Peter Martin of the Center for Community Alternatives.
Advocates have turned their attention to the role state courts play in every day life for New Yorkers, pointing to issues from deciding the implementation of criminal justice procedures, the rights of renters and how or whether consumers can hold businesses accountable.
The Court of Appeals was also a flashpoint in New York's bumpy redistricting process this year, rejecting Democratic-drawn legislative boundaries.
Hochul will choose from a list of seven potential candidates selected by a nominating commission, names that include the Albany Law School dean, a top attorney with the Legal Aid Society, a sitting member of the Court of Appeals and an administrative judge who would be the first Black woman to lead the court.
The nominee, if confirmed by the state Senate, would replace former Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, an appointee of ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Martin's organization is among a constellation of groups urging Hochul to consider diversifying the backgrounds of judges on the Court of Appeals. Progressives have signaled they do not want to see another judge with a prosecutor's background.
DiFiore is a former Westchester County district attorney; Judge Madeline Singas served as the Nassau County district attorney and Judge Michael Garcia is a former U.S. attorney.
"Courts like this need diversity of experience," Martin said. "They need judges in their collective who come in with different sensitivities and appreciations."
Democratic state lawmakers, too, have been miffed by recent court rulings they believe have sided against regular New Yorkers.
"The decisions have been tilting aggressively away from the values that New Yorkers hold dear, in favor of large employers instead of employees, in favor of large developers instead of tenants," said Deputy state Senate Majority Leader Mike Gianaris. "We want to bring this court back to a place where it represents that values of this state."
Fallout from the redistricting process, too, remains a sore point in Albany.
Democrats were also taken aback when the Court of Appeals this year rejected legislative maps drawn by state lawmakers for the state Senate and U.S. House of Representatives citing state constitutional concerns. The redistricting process was thrown to a special master; Democrats lost multiple seats in the Hudson Valley and Long Island U.S. House races this month.
"They immediately handed the power to a Republican judge who appointed an academic from Pennsylvania to draw the lines and that was to the detriment to the state in so many ways, including moving the primary dates around, which created confusion in the electorate," Gianaris said.
Republicans, including those who do not have a vote in the confirmation process, are also closely watching how Hochul will put her stamp on the court.
"This is going to be a telling moment for Gov. Hochul -- if she caves to the progressives or looks for someone with merit," Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay said. "What's wrong with doing something merit? Look at someone who is well qualified to be a judge and not pass any ideological litmus test that she has."
Hochul herself this week said she's looking for someone who is qualified to serve at any level of the legal system.
"Make us proud," she said. "Let the rest of the nation know that we're looking at the same caliber of individual that can be tapped for the Supreme Court some day."
Beyond the politics, Hochul says she is also looking for a capable administrator to oversee New York's sprawling court system and help it resume normal functions in the wake of the pandemic. Day to day, the job of chief judge is a bureaucratic one, but nevertheless key to how New Yorkers interact with the legal system.
"This chief judge has to have the experience and ability to bring back a system that has been shuttered almost," Hochul said. "That has a collateral impact on criminal justice."