The questions that political insiders eagerly pose about Janet DiFiore, who on Thursday became the state’s chief judge, focus more on how she will run the sprawling judiciary branch than how the 7-member high court she now leads might rule in big cases.
Speculation hinges not on whether — but when and where — she shakes up personnel in a $2.5 billion-plus system with 3,600 judges and 15,000 nonjudicial employees.
Just below DiFiore in the hierarchy, Judge Lawrence K. Marks has served as the system’s chief administrative judge since July, when his predecessor Gail Prudenti left for an academic post at Hofstra University. Whether DiFiore sticks with Marks or looks at some point to install her own appointee remains to be seen.
DiFiore’s predecessor Jonathan Lippman served as administrative judge under the late chief judge Judith Kaye, before succeeding her.
But DiFiore took a different route to the top rung at the Court of Appeals. She has been a visible public figure for some time, unlike Lippman who rose through the ranks of the court system. A Republican-turned-Democrat, the 60-year-old DiFiore was elected three times in the past 10 years as Westchester County district attorney. Before that, she had been elected as a county judge and a State Supreme Court justice.
Clearly allied with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, she served as his chairwoman on the state’s sometimes-contentious joint ethics commission before he nominated her to the high court.
But as with the personnel picks to come, DiFiore has yet to reveal precisely what if any new procedural reforms she might pursue.
During a Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday, she indicated she would continue Lippman’s recent administrative changes aimed at reducing long incarcerations before trial of those who cannot make bail.
She was not asked about whether she supported Lippman’s proposal to have judges supervise grand juries for cases in which police kill civilians. Most DAs, whose state association she once led, oppose ceding control of these cases.
Lippman also sought to raise the age at which adolescents can be criminally charged as adults and upgrade representation for the poor in civil and criminal cases.
Cuomo seems to have never deceived anyone into thinking he was enamored of Lippman. Any potential rival power, of course, might be regarded warily in the Capitol’s executive offices.
Funding also is a perennial source of tension between chief judges and governors. In his latest budget message, Cuomo responded with a small lecture to Lippman’s request for a 2.4 percent increase for the courts.
Cuomo wrote: “We collectively have a fiscally responsible goal of controlling excessive spending for all of New York State government to the benefit of its taxpayers.” He said any boost should be kept to 2 percent.
That, too, is now DiFiore’s problem.