Chief Judge of New York Court of Appeals Janet DiFiore will step down in August

July 11, 2022 Daniel Cody
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The chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals, who occupies the highest judicial position in the state government, announced on Monday, July 11, that she will be stepping down on August 31. The Hon. Janet DiFiore – a Democrat – has served as the top-ranking magistrate since 2016, appointed by then-Governor Andrew Cuomo.

“As Chief Judge, I set out to bring operational and decisional excellence to every level of our court system while leading our state’s high court in developing a strong, predictable body of law to guide our communities, our economy and the personal and professional lives of our citizenry,” wrote DiFiore. 

Before serving as chief judge Ms. DiFiore was the district attorney of West Chester County. 

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DiFiore led both the seven-panel Court of Appeals but also the entire body of the judiciary, making her the face of the court system and liberal jurisprudence in New York over her term. Through her “Excellence Initiative,” launched in February of 2016, DiFiore has pushed the courts to achieve operational and decisional excellency – “justice delayed is justice denied.” 

“And so, with the foundational principles of the Excellence Initiative now fully integrated into our operating model; with presumptive ADR an integral component of our civil case management system; with our historic work to achieve racial equity and meaningful inclusion among the members of our court family well underway; and with our access to justice services expanded and more fully funded, it is time for me to move on to the next chapter of my professional life,” wrote DiFiore in a July 11 letter. 

According to The New York Times, who originally broke the story of DiFiore’s resignation, she shied away from questions about the New York court system’s resistance to the federal Supreme Court. Instead, DiFiore attributes her management of the COVID crisis and the overwhelmed judiciary with “objective balance” the key intentions of her political office. 

In March of 2021 while addressing the public in the annual State of the Judiciary address, DiFiore, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Brad Hoylman (D–Manhattan), Assembly Judiciary Committee Chair Charles D. Lavine (D–Glen Cove) called for the state court system to encourage diversity among justices and employ cost-centric reform allowing litigants to settle matters with ease, as reported by the Brooklyn Eagle. DiFiore blasted the culture within Housing, Family, Civil and Criminal courts of New York City, urging the stratification of a century-old state court system with vestigial and often ambiguous administrative bodies like the Town and Village Courts, merging New York’s 11 trial courts into two entitles. The plan did not end up working out. 

Justice DiFiore’s legacy will remain in key decisions like the overturning of election maps in 2019, in which she determined that Democrats had unconstitutionally drawn districts that skewed elections in their favor. She wrote a scathing 32-page opinion among the divided court which found that Democratic leaders violated the state constitution and explicit bans on partisan gerrymandering. The decision enraged Democrats.  

Hakeem Jefferies (D–Brooklyn), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said “good riddance” to DiFiore, who he said had abetted the Republican attacks on the redistricting process. 

Governor Kathy Hochul offered her remarks congratulating the judge on her long career within the state judiciary. 

“From the Westchester District Attorney’s Office to the Court of Appeals, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore has dedicated her career to the people of New York. Chief Judge DiFiore’s leadership of our state court system – especially during the unprecedented times of the COVID-19 pandemic – has been a critical asset,” said Governor Hochul.  

“I thank Judge DiFiore for her years of service and look forward to reviewing the recommendations of the Commission on Judicial Nomination as we work to appoint new leadership to the Court.” 

The Legal Aid Society, a city-based nonprofit which provides legal aid to vulnerable New Yorkers, thanked DiFiore for her commitment and asked the governor to nominate a justice with relevant experience in counsel as a public defender, along with Black and Latino communities. 

“We implore Governor Kathy Hochul to now nominate a jurist to the New York State Court of Appeals who has served as a public defender, civil legal services attorney, or both, and equally important, from the neighborhoods we serve, historically marginalized communities of color,” the Legal Aid Society wrote in a statement.  

“The absence of a public defender and civil legal services attorney on the Court create a tremendous gap of knowledge and experience, which is especially problematic given the critical issues confronting the Court and our legal system as a whole.”

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