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Cuomo faces deadline to choose high court nominee

Brian Turner

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has until the end of this week to fill a vacancy on the state’s highest court. His choices include the reappointment of a Republican woman judge who currently holds the seat, and several Democratic alternatives.

Judge Victoria Graffeo’s term on the New York State Court of Appeals ends later this year. Under the rules Cuomo could reappoint her, but she would only be able to serve out part of the fourteen year term. Graffeo is now 62 years old, and the mandatory retirement age for state judges is 70. Graffeo is also a Republican, and Cuomo is a Democrat.

Albany Law School professor and Court of Appeals expert Vince Bonventre is a self-professed liberal Democrat. Despite that, he says he and many others in the legal community believe Graffeo deserves the chance to serve on the court for eight more years.

“You’ve got a judge that’s really seasoned, she’s wise, she’s experienced, and by all accounts she’s very collegial,” Bonventre said. “She’s really a fine judge.”

The state’s Commission on Judicial Nomination sent Cuomo a list of seven recommendations, including Graffeo and six lawyers and sitting judges, who are all Democrats. They include candidates who could be the first Indian-American and the first openly gay judge on the court.

If Cuomo picks a Democrat over Graffeo, it will tip the balance of the seven-member court away from Republicans, many of whom were chosen by previous GOP Gov. George Pataki, and toward Democrats.

Cuomo has already appointed two Democrats to the court, Jenny Rivera and Sheila Abdul-Salaam, but they replaced Democratic judges Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick, who retired, and Judge Theodore Jones, who died in office.

Bonventre says a Democratic majority could make a difference in some key decisions, but he says the high court in New York has none of the partisan bickering or gridlock experienced in the U.S. Supreme Court, where presidents in recent decades have made appointments based on a nominee’s ideology.

“They’re not acting like judges," said Bonventre of the Supreme Court. “It’s really terrible. You don’t have that at the Court of Appeals.”

If Cuomo does stick with Graffeo and reappoint her, he would be following in the tradition of his father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo. He also nominated several judges from the other major party. The younger Cuomo would also be in step with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, who is often an ally of the Democratic New York governor. Christie recently chose to reappoint a liberal Democratic judge to head New Jersey’s high court.

If Cuomo does decide to reappoint Graffeo and keep the majority of judges Republican, he will very soon get another chance to swing the balance of the court back to the Democrats. Judge Robert Smith, a Republican, is now age 70 and will be retiring on December 31.