Janet DiFiore, Westchester Prosecutor, Is Nominated as New York’s Chief Judge

by | Dec 2, 2015 | Press

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Tuesday nominated Janet DiFiore, center, to lead the Court of Appeals, the state’s top judicial post. – -Credit Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Tuesday nominated Janet DiFiore, center, to lead the Court of Appeals, the state’s top judicial post. – -Credit Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times

Article from nytimes.com by JESSE McKINLEY and JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr. DEC. 1, 2015

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Tuesday nominated Janet DiFiore, an experienced prosecutor and fellow Westchester County resident, to New York’s highest judicial post.

If confirmed by the State Senate, Ms. DiFiore, currently the Westchester district attorney, will replace Jonathan Lippman as chief judge of the State Court of Appeals. Judge Lippman is facing mandatory retirement at the end of the year.

Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, made the announcement after several months of speculation about the vacancy. Ms. DiFiore, a former Republican who switched parties nearly a decade ago, is the governor’s fifth appeals court selection, and her nomination is a continuation of his push to restock the seven-person bench with more liberal and moderate voices.

Speaking to reporters in Upper Manhattan, he called Ms. DiFiore a highly qualified candidate who had previously served as a State Supreme Court justice, as well as the chairwoman of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, the main ethics panel in Albany.

“Chief judge is a very, very important position,” the governor said, “and I think she’s going to do an extraordinary job.”

As the chief judge, Ms. DiFiore would not only adjudicate a range of important state cases, but also oversee the state’s often complex court system, with some 14,200 employees and 3,600 judges.

Ms. DiFiore’s nomination drew praise from many legal quarters — circulated en masse by the governor’s office — including compliments from Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, who said she had “dedicated her career to ensuring public safety and fairness,” and Judge Lippman himself, who hailed her “intellect, integrity and collegiality.”

Ms. DiFiore, 60, declined a request for an interview. She issued a statement through the governor’s office saying she was honored. “My professional life has been devoted to the fair administration of justice, and I would gladly continue my service to the people of New York on our state’s highest court,” she said.

State Senator John J. Bonacic, a Hudson Valley Republican and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, was muted in his reaction, saying merely that he would “reserve comment until we have the opportunity to do our due diligence.”

Legal experts suggested that Ms. DiFiore would probably bring a center-to-left vision to the court.

As a prosecutor and former trial judge, Ms. DiFiore comes to the job from a starkly different background from that of Judge Lippman, a court reform advocate who spent most of his career as an administrative judge.

Judge Lippman has been a strong liberal voice on the court, curtailing police powers in some cases. For instance, in 2009 he wrote an influential decision in People v. Weaver saying officers must have a search warrant before they place a tracking device on a suspect’s car.

The chief judge has expanded legal services to the poor in both civil and criminal courts and has established specialized courts that offer alternatives to incarceration for teenagers and drug addicts. He has also been a consistent advocate for new legislation to revamp the cash bail system and raise the age of legal responsibility.

“She’s been a champion for the reduction and prevention of wrongful convictions,” said Vincent Bonventre, a professor at Albany Law School who closely follows the court. He cited the case of Jeffrey Mark Deskovic, who was wrongfully convicted of raping and killing a high school classmate.

Shortly after taking office in 2006, Ms. DiFiore allowed DNA evidence from that case to run through a national database, clearing Mr. Deskovic. She later commissioned a report that detailed the errors that led to his conviction and recommended changes, including videotaping interrogations.

Ms. DiFiore is well known in Albany: In late 2011, she was named by Mr. Cuomo to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics. She resigned in 2013 to run for re-election in Westchester. In 2014, Mr. Cuomo named Ms. DiFiore to a commission devoted to studying juvenile justice.

A graduate of St. John’s University School of Law, Ms. DiFiore began her law enforcement career as an assistant district attorney in Westchester, including a stint as the chief of its narcotics division. She was elected a county judge there in 1998, followed by two and a half years as a justice on the State Supreme Court. In 2005, she was elected district attorney, succeeding Jeanine F. Pirro, the conservative and combative prosecutor who has since become a legal analyst with Fox News.

Ms. DiFiore is the mother of three adult children and lives in Bronxville, about 20 miles south of Mr. Cuomo’s home in New Castle, with her husband, Dennis E. Glazer, a retired lawyer.

Jesse McKinley reported from Albany, and James C. McKinley Jr. from New York.