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Cuomo picks second woman to head high court


Gov. Andrew Cuomo has chosen Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore as his choice as the next person to lead the state’s highest court.

Cuomo chose DiFiore, an ally who ran his ethics commission for a time, who would be only the second woman chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals.

“I think she’s going to do an extraordinary job,” Cuomo predicted.

DiFiore is well regarded as a DA, noted for reviving wrongful conviction cases, which led in at least one instance to an exoneration and the conviction of the actual culprit using DNA evidence. The choice was praised by Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck.

Vince Bonventre , a court expert and Albany Law School professor, said it’s a good choice based on DiFiore’s record as DA.

“She was the kind of district attorney from day one who said, among other things, ‘we’re going to make sure that the rights of the accused are honored,'” Bonventre said.  

Bonventre said DiFiore, like Cuomo, seems to hold moderate to liberal views. She was even once a Republican before switching to the Democratic Party.

Bu,t he said if the governor thinks that DiFiore as chief judge will rule his way on cases, history shows that’s not going to be the case.

“There are lots of lessons that governors and presidents have learned,” said Bonventre, who said she could be very independent.

DiFiore will replace the current chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, who was picked by former Gov. David Paterson. Lippman is forced to retire on December 31 because he has reached the age of 70 and under New York State law must leave. In a recent interview with the statewide public television show New York Now, Lippman criticized that law, calling the age 70 limit the “constitutional age of senility."

“It’s ridiculous in the year 2015,” said Lippman, who said the rule was made in 1846, when the average life expectancy was 40.

State lawmakers attempted to change the state’s constitution to let judges stay on the bench longer, but it was voted down in 2013.

The chief judge says ultimately, though, he’s ok with leaving.

“There’s a time for change,” Lippman said. “Get new blood.”

Lippman has been an advocate for greater legal services for the poor. He’s also made it easier for low income New Yorkers to post bail.

The State Senate has until December 30 to hold hearings and vote on DiFiore’s nomination. But, it’s unlikely that they will meet that deadline. Senate Leader John Flanagan, at the Capitol in early November for meeting with his Republican members, said he does not see the Senate coming back in December to ratify the governor’s choice.

“I don’t see any reason why we would do that,” Flanagan said.

If the Senate does not act until into the New Year, that means the Court of Appeals will begin meeting January 4 with two judges missing. Judge Susan Read retired early and the governor won’t be announcing his choice to replace Read until later in December, with a confirmation vote in mid-January.

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.