As a lifelong Democrat and practicing lawyer for over 40 years, I am appalled by the Albany coup d’êtat in which Andrew Cuomo’s political rivals trampled the rights of the electorate and basic due process for their own political gain.
As Democrats, we support the right of sexual harassment victims to come forward. But it need not be at the expense of sacred constitutional rights designed to protect all citizens, individually and collectively, against the seizure of political power from a duly elected leader.
The "cancel culture" mentality supplanted governmental process and fairness, all politically orchestrated. The governor’s political competitors and the so-called "socialist" faction weaponized sexual harassment allegations, exploiting the emotion and power of the issue to cripple Cuomo’s practical ability to defend himself in the media. They insisted that Attorney General Letitia James exclusively control the review even though she had an obvious conflict as a potential Cuomo challenger. Finally, to complete the coup, they maneuvered the State Legislature toward impeachment, citing the attorney general’s legally infirm report.
James was mandated by law to employ "independent reviewers." But her report was neither "independent" nor a "review." Instead, she hand-picked Joon Kim, a longtime and well-known critic of Cuomo, and as the second reviewer, a lawyer specializing in female victims’ lawsuits. James’ presumption to "believe all victims" is political rhetoric, not legal protocol.
The report was a mere repetition of complainants’ accusations with minimal factual or evidentiary assessment of credibility, motivation or accuracy. There is a major difference between what an individual may find personally "offensive" or "insensitive" and what is "illegal." The James report drew no such distinction. It adopted the cries of at least one person with a history of making false claims, anonymous complaints, or trivial contentions, and cites complainants to whom the law didn’t even apply. James’ headline proclaiming "eleven violations of state and federal law" sparked a stampede of sensationalism but was not tested by proof, confrontation of accusers, and other fundaments of due process.
It is no rejoinder that Cuomo relinquished his opportunity for due process by voluntarily resigning. A hallmark of due process is sufficient time to prepare and present a defense. James unleashed her report without any prior notice, far earlier than expected. Her extreme progressive allies in the legislature pronounced him guilty en masse, giving him just a few days before they initiated the impeachment process. Without doubt, the governor’s detractors devised this unprecedentedly tight schedule to railroad him into resignation.
The legislature now says that Assemb. Charles Lavine and the Judiciary Committee he chairs will review the James report. However, the issue is now moot and this "concession" to due process is just more hypocrisy. The legislature’s actions are nothing more than political payback, Albany-style, exposed by its own secret treatment of sexual harassment complaints against its own members.
Ironically, the engineers of this utterly undemocratic process — the same politicians who have railed against voter suppression — committed the ultimate act of voter disenfranchisement by stripping the electorate of its thrice-elected chief executive who, amid this controversy, continued to outpoll his best-known potential challengers.
As an immediate matter, with the state facing many unprecedented challenges, the loss of its superlatively effective governor is likely to have further unpleasant consequences. In the long run, we all should be frightened by the notion that our leaders can be driven out by an insular group of politicians subverting the will of the voters. Elections matter.
This guest essay reflects the views of David H. Pikus, a lawyer at Bressler, Amery & Ross who was a volunteer assistant counsel to Gov. Mario M. Cuomo’s Judicial Screening Committee in the 1980s and a supporter of Andrew M. Cuomo. He has not worked for Andrew Cuomo.