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Senate poised to confirm first openly gay judge to state’s high court

Catherine Loper

The state Senate is likely to confirm Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s nomination to fill the latest vacancy on the state’s highest court.

Judge Paul Feinman would be the first openly gay judge on the Court of Appeals. During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, the Long Island native was generally praised by committee members.

He talked of his nearly two decades of experience as a judge, including as a State Supreme Court and then an appellate court judge. Feinman said he would try to live up to the reputation and legacy of the judge he would be replacing, Sheila Abdus-Salaam, who died in April in what police said was a suicide.

“If confirmed, I pledge to you that I will work hard every day and with integrity,” Feinman said. “To carry out the tremendous responsibility that comes with serving on the Court of Appeals.”

Feinman said he has recovered from having leukemia in 2015, and his doctors say he’s fully fit to serve on the court.

Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat and a friend of the judge, asked Feinman about the defense of the indigent, something critics say the state has underfunded in the past. Feinman once worked as legal aid attorney. The judge answered that he would remain impartial when deciding cases.

“Once you put on the robe, you are not an advocate, either for the defendant or the prosecutor,” Feinman said.

Sen. Thomas Croce, a Republican from Long Island, asked Feinman for his views on the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and whether Feinman believes the amendment “confers an individual right” to bear arms. Feinman cited U.S. Supreme Court decisions affirming that right.

“That’s the settled law,” he said.

A question from Senate Judiciary Chair John Bonacic, a Republican from the Hudson Valley, highlighted ongoing tensions between the Legislature and the governor as the legislative session winds down. Bonacic asked Feinman whose side he would take if the governor and lawmakers went to court.

“We want to make sure that you have that independence,” Bonacic said. “And not beholden to a governor who has put your name forward to serve on the Court of Appeals.”

Feinman said he cherishes his independence.

“I will uphold the separation of powers,” Feinman said. “And that includes, if necessary, saying no to the governor.”

Cuomo has now appointed all seven of the judges on the state’s highest court in the past few years.

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.