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Long IslandPolitics

Next governor could reshape state's highest court

In this combination of two file photos, Westchester

In this combination of two file photos, Westchester County executive and Republican Gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino, left, and incumbent New York Governor Andrew Cuomo are shown. Photo Credit: AP

ALBANY -- It's a hidden issue in the gubernatorial campaign, though one that will impact New Yorkers for a decade or more.

The winner of the contest between Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Republican Rob Astorino will be able to reshape New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals.

The winner will be able to name four judges to the seven-member panel over the next four years. For Astorino, that would mean he could appoint a majority. For Cuomo, it would mean that, by the end of his second term in office, he'd have appointed all seven members.

"This is absolutely huge," said Vincent Bonventre, an Albany Law School professor and longtime Court of Appeals analyst. "The decisions made on this issue will carry on for a long time, long after you and I are gone. It's a damn shame the public doesn't understand it or pay attention to it."

The judiciary traditionally has the lowest profile of the three branches of state government. But it decides many crucial issues, ruling over the last decade-plus on the state's death penalty law, school funding cases, rules of police search and seizure, same-sex marriage and a ban on large-sized sugary drinks.

On key Long Island issues, the court recently has upheld the MTA payroll tax and ordered Nassau County to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in refunds to overtaxed businesses.

Currently, the court features four judges appointed by former Republican Gov. George Pataki, one by former Democratic Gov. David A. Paterson and two by Cuomo. Judges' terms are 14 years.

The term of one of the Pataki judges, Victoria Graffeo, ends in November. Cuomo could reappoint her, though it's not expected. (Cuomo is expected to either reappoint her or choose another judge by Friday.)

Beginning Jan. 1, four more terms will expire over the next four years: the three remaining Pataki appointees (Robert S. Smith, Eugene Pigott Jr. and Susan Read), and the Paterson appointee (Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman).

Neither Astorino nor Cuomo has offered a lot of specifics about judicial leanings.

"They need to have an even temperament and a career that demonstrates impartiality," Astorino campaign spokeswoman Jessica Proud said of the Republican's view on potential high-court judges. "He would also seek to have less partisanship in the courts. In addition to having knowledge of state government, he will look for individuals with an understanding of local governments."

Cuomo has said he does not look at party affiliation or viewpoints. "You just pick the best and don't worry about Democrats or Republicans," he said in a recent radio interview. "It has nothing to do with the politics of Democrats or Republicans."


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