The New York Court of Appeals is having a moment of unusual awareness. That’s what makes the selection of a new chief judge for the state’s top court such an incredible opportunity.
Gov. Kathy Hochul has until Dec. 23 to select a new leader from a list submitted by a judicial screening board to replace Janet DiFiore, who resigned this summer without explanation, six years into a 14-year term. The State Senate then has 30 days to confirm or reject the nomination.
The chief judge shepherds the seven-member court. But the bigger responsibility is oversight of the massive state court system, an enterprise with a $3 billion budget and 1,350 state judges, not to mention even more local municipal justices and almost 15,000 employees. What happens daily in each of those courtrooms is significant in the lives of New Yorkers from divorce proceedings and mental health challenges to housing and speeding ticket disputes. Most significantly, the chief judge makes sure the criminal courts are operating swiftly to decide cases while protecting the rights of defendants and communities.
It’s a system still struggling to recover from a backlog of cases caused by COVID-19 shutdowns. The new chief's top task will be selecting a state administrative judge to supervise this vast and complex judicial system. The governor should ask the nominees what criteria they would use in filling this post and what they see as the top administrative issues.
Hochul promised during her campaign to find an “excellent jurist” to lead a bench that once had a stellar national reputation. We hope the governor will carefully consider someone with judicial experience, or considerable courtroom experience, with a reputation for collegiality and the ability to build consensus on a bench that has welcomed three new members in the last two years. No chief judge can change votes but they can ensure that majority opinions are clear and cohesive.
What Hochul should not do is listen to lawmakers and interest groups demanding a “progressive” justice or heed the even more outrageous demand that she reject anyone who served as a prosecutor. Such ultimatums undermine confidence that the justice system is independent and a place of fair arbitration where the law will be applied to the facts. Judges should not be partisan, nor make policy.
The Court of Appeals boldly showed its independence earlier this year by finding that the Democratic-controlled legislature grossly overstepped by gerrymandering congressional lines in its once-a-decade redistricting. That strong decision was a rebuke to the notion that the party affiliation or ideology that controls the gavel is predictive of the outcome.
New York’s top court and justice system need vibrant new leadership that reaffirms the judiciary as an independent branch of government. Hochul will be judged on whether she can make that happen.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.