Hochul will be seeking to replace Janet DiFiore, seen here...

Hochul will be seeking to replace Janet DiFiore, seen here in 2016. DiFiore resigned in August after serving more than six years. Credit: AP/Mike Groll

ALBANY — Gov. Kathy Hochul will be under pressure from fellow Democrats to diversify New York's top court — by selecting a non-prosecutor — when she nominates a new chief judge before Christmas.

Hochul will be seeking to replace Janet DiFiore, a Cuomo appointee who steered the Court of Appeals in a conservative direction.

The chief judge not only leads the seven-member Court of Appeals but also influences how many and what type of cases it hears annually, along with setting the tone for the state court system.

Under DiFiore, who resigned in August after serving more than six years, two trends stood out.

Prosecutors won cases at a much higher rate than under her predecessors.

Further, the number of criminal and civil appeals the court agreed to hear dramatically declined — meaning it became harder for defendants and litigants to get their day at the Court of Appeals.

Some Democrats and progressive advocates have complained the court became dominated by ex-prosecutors such as DiFiore, who was a Westchester County district attorney, and have urged Hochul to create a more diverse bench.

Hochul will have to choose from a set of seven candidates sent to her Wednesday by a judicial screening commission. They include four judges, a law school dean and a law professor, and a top attorney at the Legal Aid Society, which provides attorneys and advocacy for people living at or near the poverty level.

Per law, Gov. Kathy Hochul has until Dec. 23 to...

Per law, Gov. Kathy Hochul has until Dec. 23 to nominate a candidate.

Credit: AP/Joshua Bessex

 Analysts said Friday it’s a list that has diverse backgrounds and progressive candidates. All have some level of managerial or supervisory experience.

“They certainly put some individuals on the list who are clearly progressive,” Vincent Bonventre, a professor at Albany Law School of Union University and longtime court observer, said.

In particular, Bonventre pointed out Corey Stoughton, the attorney in charge of special litigation and law reform at the Legal Aid Society.

Bonventre also noted the list provides Hochul with a chance to break ground by possibly appointing the first openly gay chief judge (Anthony Cannataro, who has been acting chief since DiFiore left), first Hispanic (Hector LaSalle, an appellate judge and former Suffolk County assistant district attorney), first African American woman (Edwina Richardson-Mendelson, an administrative judge) or first Asian American (Jeffrey Oing, an appellate judge).

Richardson-Mendelson also had spent time as attorney in family court and an agency providing services to battered women, officials said.

The other finalists are Alicia Ouellette, dean of Albany Law School and a former assistant solicitor general, and Abbe Gluck, a Yale University law and medical school professor and former clerk to late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

 “It’s a professionally more diverse list than some prior lists,” said Brian Ginsberg, a veteran appeals attorney who has argued cases before the top court.

He said while some might focus on the political leanings of the candidates, it’s just as important to ask their views of “what sort of issues and cases they think are worthy of a spot on the court’s docket.”

The court, by and large, has no hard rules about what cases it must take, Ginsberg noted. History shows who is chief judge makes a difference.

Under DiFiore, the court’s workload plummeted, hearing 30 or so criminal cases annually compared to about 75 per year under her predecessor, Jonathan Lippman.

 A decade ago, the court heard about 150 civil cases per year, compared to just over 60 annually under DiFiore.

Per law, Hochul has until Dec. 23 to nominate a candidate. The State Senate likely would hold confirmation hearings in early January.

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