New York’s Top Judge, Janet DiFiore, to Step Down

Janet DiFiore, the chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, says she will step down at the end of August, even as lawmakers in Albany consider stronger laws on guns and abortion, measures at the heart of a national debate whose legality could be determined by the state judiciary.

In an interview on Monday morning, Judge DiFiore, 66, who is in charge of the state’s entire court system, said that there was no triggering event for her resignation, but that she was ready to pursue other opportunities after more than six years on the job that included rancorous criticism from some of the judges and court employees she supervised and legislators who were upset at her decisions.

“I’ve made my contribution,” she said, adding that she had no other job waiting, but felt it was a “comfortable moment” to move on. She allowed, however, that there would be “another chapter in my professional career.”

“What that is, at this very moment, I’m not certain,” she said.

The chief judge of the Court of Appeals, which has seven members, is New York’s highest judicial post. Judge DiFiore will be replaced by an acting chief judge, selected by the six other judges on the court, until a successor is named by Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, and confirmed by the State Senate, which is also led by a Democratic supermajority.

Judge DiFiore, the former district attorney in Westchester County — and a onetime Republican who switched parties more than 15 years ago — was nominated to the court in 2015 by the previous governor, Andrew M. Cuomo, who resigned last August. She was the second female chief judge, after Judith S. Kaye, and one of six Court of Appeals judges appointed by Mr. Cuomo. Her resignation will give Ms. Hochul a second appointment to New York’s high court; the first was Shirley Troutman last year.

The chief judge of the Court of Appeals serves a 14-year term. The job requires overseeing not only the high court itself but the state’s sprawling judicial system, which has a $3 billion budget and includes more than 1,350 state judges, along with another 1,850 town and village judges and more than 14,000 nonjudicial employees.

New York’s court could serve as a bulwark to conservative rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court, which recently overturned abortion rights and curtailed a New York law that regulated the carrying of concealed weapons.

But on Monday, Judge DiFiore demurred on such questions, saying her proudest moments involved managing the chronically overwhelmed judiciary, maintaining objective balance and handling proceedings during the Covid crisis. The pandemic had severely curtailed in-person proceedings statewide in most cases, with Court of Appeals arguments being held virtually rather than in the baroque confines of its Albany courtroom, for example.

“It’s a brilliant challenge every single day,” she said.

Judge DiFiore’s legacy may best be defined by a sweeping 32-page opinion she wrote in April for a divided court that found that Democratic leaders had violated the State Constitution when they drew new congressional and State Senate districts. The opinion, for a four-judge majority, also said congressional districts designed by Democrats violated an explicit state ban on partisan gerrymandering.

The decision enraged Democrats, who openly accused the chief judge of undertaking an extralegal power grab.

Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the highest-ranking New York Democrat in the House who has been one of the leading critics of the redistricting decision, made his feelings about Judge DiFiore clear on Monday. “Good riddance,” he said in a statement.

The judge also had a bitter conflict with Dennis Quirk, president of the New York State Court Officers Association. Mr. Quirk was suspended for 30 days last year for posting Judge DiFiore’s address online amid a fight over coronavirus vaccine mandates and his contention that she failed to address what he said were false allegations of racism against the union and its leadership.

Mr. Quirk filed a complaint with the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct accusing the judge of fostering “a systemic culture of intimidation.” He later gave a profane interview to the New York Daily News in which he said he would stay on the job to spite the judge.

Lucian Chalfen, a courts spokesman, said Monday of Mr. Quirk, “In his many years as a union leader, both doing his job and having undue influence, he never came across anyone — certainly not a woman — who would stand up to him.”

In a statement on Monday afternoon, Ms. Hochul said that Judge DiFiore had “dedicated her career to the people of New York” and praised the judge’s leadership of the court system “especially during the unprecedented times of the Covid-19 pandemic.” She added that she would review the recommendations of a state commission for new judges as soon as such recommendations were made.

Jonathan Lippman, Judge DiFiore’s predecessor, said it was obvious there were liberal and conservative currents on the court, in both criminal and civil justice.

“But I don’t think that this chief judge lived or died by whether people thought she was liberal or conservative or centrist,” he said. “She had her own views. She took each case as they came, and I think she was a strong leader.”

He said he didn’t think anyone had predicted the recent gerrymandering decision. “And it had national significance,” Mr. Lippmann said. “And she did what she thought was right.”

State Senator Brad Hoylman, a Democrat from the West Side of Manhattan who is the chair of the judiciary committee, had kind but cautionary comments on Judge DiFiore’s resignation, including criticism of the court’s decisions on worker and tenant rights and criminal justice.

“Over the last several years, the Court of Appeals has become increasingly out of step with the needs and desires of New Yorkers,” Mr. Hoylman said. “It’s time for a new direction in our judicial branch.”

State Senator Michael Gianaris, the chamber’s second-highest ranking leader, added that the judge’s resignation “allows for a necessary recalibration of our state’s highest court after a series of wrongheaded decisions” on workplaces, corporations and law enforcement personnel.

“I encourage Governor Hochul to choose a nominee who better reflects the values of our state and look forward to a more robust confirmation process to ensure that happens,” he said.

Judge DiFiore also was the object of sharp criticism from other state judges in 2020 when her administration, citing the need for deep budget cuts, denied applications from 46 of 49 judges who wanted to keep serving beyond the state’s retirement age for judges of 70 — a step that previously was granted all but routinely.

The dispute grew so bitter that 10 judges joined in a pair of unusual lawsuits against Judge DiFiore and an administrative board that had voted unanimously to let the older judges go. They charged that they were the victims of age discrimination.

Judge DiFiore, who said the court system was trying to avoid layoffs, had defended the cuts, calling them “the most painful decision to date.”

Mr. Chalfen, the courts spokesman, said that when more funding became available last year, the older judges were invited to reapply to continue working, and a number of them have returned to the bench.

David B. Saxe, a retired Appellate Division judge and now lawyer in private practice whose firm handled one of the judges’ lawsuits, said Monday that during the litigation, Judge DiFiore “demonstrated an unnecessary intransigence toward any settlement of the case that was offered by the judges.”

Mr. Chalfen, the courts spokesman, said in response: “Difficult decisions are what executives make. That’s what’s entailed when one runs the third branch of government.”

Nicholas Fandos and William K. Rashbaum contributed reporting.

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