Janet DiFiore at a hearing on her nomination as chief...

Janet DiFiore at a hearing on her nomination as chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals at the State Capitol in January 2016. Credit: AP/Mike Groll

New York’s Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, a former prosecutor who helped shift the state’s top court in a more conservative direction, announced Monday she will step down before her tenure is scheduled to end.

DiFiore, 66, said she will retire effective Aug. 31, even though she could serve 3½ more years.

The former Westchester County district attorney has led the state Court of Appeals for more than six years, after her nomination as chief judge by then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in December 2015.

About 6 hours after her announcement, Law360.com, a legal news publication, reported DiFiore was under investigation by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct for allegedly interfering in a disciplinary hearing involving a court-officers' union chief who has criticized the chief judge.

The commission couldn't be reached immediately for comment late Monday.

A DiFiore spokesman didn’t deny the investigation but said the judge’s decision was unrelated.

“Anyone can file a complaint regardless of merit and it will be considered,” Lucian Chalfen, spokesman for the Office of Court Administration, said.

Referring to Dennis Quirk, the union leader, Chalfen said: “Chief Judge DiFiore’s announcement today, one she has been planning for months, is completely unrelated to Dennis Quirk’s or anyone else’s complaint or any other external factors.”

In a statement Monday, DiFiore said she was moving on to her “next chapter in life," but detailed no immediate plans.

DiFiore's sudden departure will give Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, her first opportunity to nominate a chief judge for the seven-member Court of Appeals.

Some Democratic leaders wasted no time in calling on Hochul to make a shift in the court's direction by appointing a more progressive top jurist.

"In light of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions and now news of the New York Chief Judge stepping down, it is more important than ever that Governor Hochul nominates and the [state] Senate confirms a progressive chief judge," Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) wrote on Twitter.

With DiFiore in charge, New York’s judiciary was the one branch of state government that moved in a conservative direction — in contrast to the increasingly progressive bent of the executive and legislative branches.

Newsday has reported that during DiFiore's tenure, criminal defendants won fewer cases than under her predecessors — with prosecutors winning about 75% of the time during one recent three-year window.

Further, it became harder for defendants and civil litigants to get the court to hear their appeals.

The court, on average, agreed each year to hear fewer than half the number of cases greenlighted by Jonathan Lippman, DiFiore's immediate predecessor.

"The headline is 'Reduced caseload' and 'Much, much more conservative direction,' " Vincent Bonventre, an Albany Law School professor who has studied the high court, said when asked about DiFiore's tenure.

One of DiFiore's final opinions rocked New York’s political world.

In a 4-3 decision, with DiFiore in the majority, the court declared a set of redistricting maps approved by the State Legislature and Gov. Kathy Hochul to have been gerrymandered illegally and approved improperly.

The ruling resulted in a Republican judge's appointment of a “special master” who redrew lines for State Senate and congressional districts in New York. 

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