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Court expert: Cuomo has six good choices for chief judge

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New York will soon have a new top judge now that the current chief judge of the Court of Appeals is approaching the mandatory retirement age of 70.  Westchester District Attorney and Cuomo ally Janet DiFiore is on the list as a potential replacement.    

If DiFiore is ultimately chosen by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, she would be only the second woman to hold the position of chief judge of the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.  The first woman to be chief Judge, Judith Kaye, heads the commission that came up with a seven-person list of nominees for Cuomo to choose from. Kaye had to retire under New York law because she reached the age of 70.

Court expert and Albany Law School Professor Vince Bonventre calls the list superb compared to ones in the past.

“Typically, there would be two, maybe three names on the list and you’d say ‘what are they doing on this list?’” Bonventre said. “That’s really changed.”

DiFiore, who briefly ran Cuomo’s New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics, is considered to be the favorite. Bonventre said she transformed the Westchester District Attorney’s office and would be a solid choice.

DiFiore was also instrumental in the exoneration of a Jeffery Deskovic, who was convicted in 1990 of raping and murdering a high school classmate.  The Innocence Project requested a new DNA test, but the staff of the previous district attorney, Jeanine Pirro, did not take up the case. DiFiore authorized the DNA review.

“And viola, this poor fellow who had been in jail for many, many  years on rape and murder charges, found out he was totally innocent, and somebody else had committed the crime,” Bonventre said.

Also on the list is Rowan Wilson, who's in private practice with the prestigious law firm Cravath, Swaine and Moore. If he's chosen, Wilson would be the first African American chief judge in New York state. He also has experience in commercial law, a skill Bonventre says is lacking on the court.

Michael Garcia, the former U.S. Attorney for the southern district of New York is also among the nominees, along with the past presidents of the New York City and New York State Bar Associations.

Bonventre said all of the nominees have experience managing significant numbers of people, which is a key skill for the post of chief judge, who also administers the state’s court system.

Cuomo must choose one nominee by December 1, but the others on the list still have another chance. Judge Susan Read retired early and her replacement must be selected by December 22.  Both Lippmann and Read’s replacements are also subject to a confirmation process by the state Senate, which will likely happen early next year. By then, Cuomo will have chosen six of the seven judges on the high court.

The seventh judge, Eugene Pigot, was selected by former Gov. George Pataki, but he also reaches the age of 70 in 2016 and must retire, giving Cuomo the opportunity to pick the entire court. 

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.