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Lawmakers call for LGBTQ+ judge to fill high court vacancy

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo will appoint three new judges to New York’s highest court this year, and a group of state lawmakers is asking that at least one of them be representative of the LGBTQ+ community after the court’s only openly gay judge retired this year.

Four openly LGBTQ+ state lawmakers are urging a panel that vets potential nominees to the high court to give Cuomo options representative of the LGBTQ+ community.

“With multiple current and prospective vacancies on the horizon, we are confident that the Commission will stand to meet this moment and help foster a Court where everyone is represented and can feel heard,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to the panel.

The letter was sent to the New York State Commission on Judicial Nomination, which will compile a shortlist of candidates for Cuomo, and was signed by Sen. Jabari Brisport and Assemblymembers Daniel O’Donnell, Deborah Glick, and Harry Bronson.

That would be to fill one of the three vacancies on the state Court of Appeals, the state equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court. Two of those vacancies are expected to be filled by July, while the third won’t open up until Judge Eugene Fahey retires later this year.

One of the vacancies was created by the sudden departure, last month, of Associate Judge Paul Feinman, the first openly-gay judge to serve on the Court of Appeals.

Feinman retired due to health reasons, and died within days of stepping down from the bench. He had joined the Court of Appeals four years ago, and his confirmation marked a victory for advocates who’d called for an openly gay judge on the high court for years.

Now, the four lawmakers are hoping Cuomo will have another opportunity to appoint a representative from the LGBTQ+ community to the high court.

“It is imperative that the Commission of Judicial Nomination focus on vetting and recommending qualified LGBTQ+ candidates, who have an intimate understanding of the unique perspectives and needs of our community, to fill Judge Feinman’s vacancy,” the lawmakers wrote.

Cuomo, when asked Monday if he would commit to filling one of the three vacancies with an LGBTQ+ judge, said he was proud to have nominated Feinman, but won’t require one of the three new judges to be from the LGBTQ+ community.

“I don’t have a litmus test for any particular vacancy,” Cuomo said, adding that he’d like to fill the initial two vacancies quickly.

Cuomo has had the rare opportunity, during his time in office, of appointing the entirety of the seven-member Court of Appeals. Assuming he’ll be in office to fill the third vacancy later this year, he’ll have had the same opportunity again.

Each judge has to be confirmed by the State Senate, which means two of the vacancies will have to be filled before the Legislature leaves for the year in June, or remain open until they come back.

The Court of Appeals is the highest court in the state court system, the third branch of state government in New York, and functions much like the U.S. Supreme Court. Its decisions are often far-reaching and provide meaningful changes to state law.

The high court is scheduled to hear cases in April and May, and then break for the summer.

Dan Clark is the host and producer of New York NOW, a weekly television show focusing on state government produced by WMHT in Albany. Clark has been reporting on New York state government and politics for the last six years, during which time he's worked out of the state Capitol in Albany. Clark reported for the national political fact-checking publication PolitiFact, the Buffalo News, the statewide political television show Capital Tonight, and most recently the New York Law Journal. At the New York Law Journal, Clark has focused on state legal challenges to President Donald Trump, as well as litigation concerning laws enacted by the New York State Legislature. Clark covered the Legislature in each role he's held and is a familiar face to state lawmakers and staff. Clark is a native of Afton, NY in Chenango County. He's lived in Albany with his husband since 2011.