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Cuomo's choice for chief judge advances through Senate committee

Karen DeWitt
Westchester District Attorney Janet DiFiore, who has been nominated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to lead the state's highest court, answers questions from state senators.

The New York State Senate held a confirmation hearing for  Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s choice for the state’s chief judge, Westchester District Attorney Janet DiFiore. Meanwhile, Cuomo appointed another nominee to fill the final vacancy on the court -- Michael Garcia, who as U.S. attorney, brought down former Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

DiFiore, a Cuomo ally, faced questions from senators, both Republicans and Democrats, about whether she would be sufficiently independent  from Cuomo. The governor has taken a number of executive actions recently that have angered Senate Republicans, including on raising the minimum wage and raising the age when youth accused of crimes can be sentenced to state prison.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair John Bonacic asked DiFiore, who as D.A. has been a supporter of raise the age, what she would do if the governor’s executive actions were challenged and it came before the court.

DiFiore answered that as a former county court and state Supreme Court judge, she has a record of independence and impartiality, and expects that to continue.   

“I also understand my role, if I am fortunate enough to be confirmed, to make certain that each and every case that comes before me is decided on the merits without regard to any outside forces or influences,” DiFiore said. “You have my word on that.”  

But, DiFiore said she does support beefing up the family courts if the governor is successful in his effort to have 16- and 17-year-olds accused of felonies tried in family court instead of the criminal courts. And she agreed with ranking Senate Democrats Ruth Hassell-Thompson that the state’s bail system needs to be fixed so as not to be unfair to the poor.

History shows that governors, as well as presidents, often find that their appointees to high courts do not always vote the way the executive might like them to, says court expert and Albany Law School professor Vince Bonventre, who attended the hearing. Bonventre said the senators did their job, asking very probing questions.

“They need to ask that because, of course, she seems to be a close political bud of the governor,” said Bonventre, who said in many cases the appointees often go on to vote against the views of the governors and presidents.

DiFiore was asked by Southern Tier Sen. Tom O’Mara, about her views on second amendment rights, given that DiFiore is a proponent of gun control. She told the committee that she will take any case concerning guns and the second amendment, on the merits, but surprised many when revealed that she, too, is a gun owner.

“Do you have a conceal carry permit?” O’Mara asked.

“Yes I do, sir,” DiFiore answered.

DiFiore was not asked many questions about her role as the first chair of a controversial state ethics commission. It was created by Cuomo and lawmakers and is dominated by the governor’s appointees. She left after less than a year and half, saying her decision to run for reelection as DA would be a conflict.  

If she wins the full Senate confirmation vote, DiFiore would be only the second woman to lead the high court. The first woman chief judge, Judith Kaye, was chosen by Cuomo’s father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo. Kaye was forced to retire when she reached the age of 70 in 2008. She passed away earlier this month.

Shortly after the hearing, Cuomo submitted his nominee to fill yet another slot on the high court, former U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia. Garcia worked in the George W. Bush administration, and was nominated by Bush to be the U.S. attorney, where he served form 2005 through 2008. In March of 2008, Garcia brought the prostitution patronization charges against then governor Elliot Spitzer, which led to Spitzer’s abrupt resignation.

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.