New coalition calls on Hochul to appoint more progressive leader of the state court system

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Marvin Mayfield speaks.

Advocates gathered outside the Court of Appeals building in Albany on Thursday to push the governor to nominate a judge with a progressive background to lead New York’s top court.

After Janet DiFiore, the former chief judge of the Court of Appeals, announced she would resign in August, it opened an opportunity for Gov. Kathy Hochul to nominate a new head judge that would upend the bloc of Supreme Court judges that has controlled the state’s highest for the past year.

Now a coalition has come together named The Court New York Deserves to call on Hochul to nominate someone who has a history of protecting “the rights of vulnerable New Yorkers” and comes from a background other than being a prosecutor.

At the rally Thursday morning, speakers criticized the rightward shift of the state’s highest court, which occurred after two conservative-leaning members joined to create a majority in 2021, and cited several reforms that are likely to go before the new chief judge in the future.

“Right now the scales of justice are out of balance. Our prior governor put so many corporate lawyers, so many prosecutors and so many conservatives on this court that this court is fighting against us instead of with us,” said Mike Kink, executive director of labor-focused advocacy group, Strong Economy for All. “We need a court of appeals that will work with the people of New York to make progress.”

As the head administrator, the Chief Judge has wide policy-setting powers over the state court system. While DiFiore was nominated in 2016 by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the appointment of two most recent members of the Court of Appeals formed a bloc that voted in tandem with her in a more conservative bent. The next appointee will determine the balance of the court going forward.

New York Focus reported that the court’s decisions over the past year included limiting the ability of New Yorkers to sue out-of-state corporations through state courts, siding with employers on a number of cases where workers sued for damages and consistently favoring prosecution when considering criminal cases. 

Advocates also pointed out that under DiFiore’s leadership in 2020 the Court of Appeals struck down parts of the landmark rent reform law that was passed in 2019. 

Brahvan Ranga speaking.Screenshot

Brahvan Ranga, the political director of For the Many, raised alarms about how a conservative Chief Judge would rule on rent reform laws. 

A number of municipalities in the state have passed good cause eviction laws, which provides tenants rigorous eviction protections and limits rent increases. Since then Albany’s law was struck down in state Supreme Court. The city is in the process of appealing that decision, but other cities are expected to face a similar legal battle. 

“The housing security of thousands of tenants now hangs in the balance. Eventually these challenges will almost certainly be heard right here at the Court of Appeals,” said Ranga.

Speakers also pointed out that the Chief Judge has influence over problem-solving courts like drug court, which provides sentencing alternatives for people struggling with substance abuse.

“A good place to start is appointing a Chief Judge that has these humanitarian values and that is aware of the needs of the recovery community,” said Maddie Hogan, of VOCAL-NY.

At the end of August, the Court of Appeals named DiFiore’s interim successor to be sitting judge Anthony Cannataro, but her permanent replacement will be nominated later this year by Governor Hochul from a shortlist prepared by New York’s Commission on Judicial Nomination. The state Senate will then vote on the appointment when it reconvenes at . 

“The appointment of a new chief judge who can bring new depths of experience to the bench, who will be committed to upholding our values is an opportunity that our governor cannot pass on,” said Joe Paparone, of the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York and the Poor People’s Campaign.