Janet DiFiore, the presiding 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 Albany lawmakers consider tougher gun and abortion laws, measures that are at the heart of a citizenship debate, the legality of which could be determined by the state judiciary.
In an interview Monday morning, Judge DiFiore, 66, who oversees the state’s entire court system, said there had been no triggering event for her resignation, but she was willing to pursue other opportunities after more than six years in the job, which included fierce criticism from some of the judges and court clerks she oversaw and legislators who were upset with her decisions.
“I’ve done my bit,” she said, adding that she doesn’t have another job but felt it was a “comfortable moment” to move on. However, she acknowledged that there will be “another chapter in my professional career.”
“What that is, at this moment I’m not sure,” she said.
The Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals, which consists of seven members, is New York’s highest judicial office. Justice DiFiore will be replaced by an acting Chief Justice chosen from the court’s six other justices until a successor is named by Governor Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, and confirmed by the state Senate, also run by a Democratic supermajority.
Judge DiFiore, the former Westchester County district attorney — and former Republican who switched parties more than 15 years ago — was nominated to the court in 2015 by former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who resigned last August. She was the second chief justice after Judith S. Kaye and one of six judges on the Court of Appeals appointed by Mr. Cuomo. Her resignation provides Ms. Hochul with a second High Court appointment in New York; The first was Shirley Troutman last year.
The Chief Justice of the Court of Appeal serves a 14-year term. The task requires oversight not only of the High Court itself, but also of the state’s sprawling judicial system, which has a budget of $3 billion and includes more than 1,350 state judges, plus a further 1,850 city and village judges, and more than 14,000 non-judicial clerks .
The New York court could serve as a bulwark for conservative rulings from the US 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 contradicted such questions, saying her proudest moments had been managing the chronically overwhelmed judiciary, maintaining objective balance and handling proceedings during the Covid crisis. The pandemic had severely curtailed in-person proceedings across the country in most cases, with the appeals court’s arguments, for example, taking place virtually rather than within the baroque confines of its Albany courtroom.
“It’s a brilliant challenge every day,” she said.
Judge DiFiore’s legacy is best defined by a comprehensive 32-page opinion she wrote for a divided court in April, which found that Democratic leaders had violated the state Constitution when they signed new congressional and state Senate districts . The opinion, for a majority of four judges, also said the congressional districts drafted by Democrats violated an explicit state ban on partisan gerrymandering.
The decision enraged Democrats, who openly accused the chief justice of an extrajudicial seizure of power.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the senior New York House Democrat who was a leading critic of the circuit election decision, made his feelings clear to Judge DiFiore on Monday. “Good liberation,” he said in a statement.
The judge also had a bitter conflict with Dennis Quirk, the 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 battle over coronavirus vaccine mandates and his claim that she had failed to address what he believed to be false allegations of racism against the union and its leadership had asked.
Mr. Quirk filed a complaint with the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct, accusing the judge of promoting “a systemic culture of intimidation.” He later gave the New York Daily News a profane interview in which he said he was staying on the job to annoy the judge.
Lucian Chalfen, a court spokesman, said of Mr Quirk on Monday: “In his many years as a union leader, both doing his job and exercising undue influence, he never met anyone – let alone a woman – who cared would stand against him.”
In a statement Monday afternoon, Ms. Hochul said Judge DiFiore has “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 will consider recommendations from a state commission for new judges as soon as such recommendations are made.
Jonathan Lippman, Justice DiFiore’s predecessor, said it was evident that there were liberal and conservative tendencies in the court in both criminal and civil justice.
“But I don’t think this chief justice lived or died on whether people thought of her as liberal, conservative or centrist,” he said. “She had her own views. She took every case as it came and I think she was a strong leader.”
He said he doesn’t think anyone predicted the recent Gerrymandering decision. “And it had national significance,” said Herr Lippmann. “And she did what she thought was right.”
State Senator Brad Hoylman, a Democrat from Manhattan’s West Side who chairs the Judiciary Committee, offered friendly but cautionary words about Judge DiFiore’s resignation, including criticism of the court’s decisions on workers’ and tenants’ rights and criminal justice.
“In recent years, the Court of Appeals has become increasingly out of sync with the needs and desires of New Yorkers,” Mr. Hoylman said. “It’s time for a realignment in our justice industry.”
State Senator Michael Gianaris, the chamber’s second most senior chairman, added that the judge’s resignation allows for “a necessary recalibration of our state’s highest court after a series of wrong decisions” affecting jobs, corporations and law enforcement personnel.
“I encourage Gov. Hochul to choose a candidate who better reflects our state’s values and look forward to a more robust confirmation process to ensure that happens,” he said.
Judge DiFiore was also the subject of harsh criticism from fellow state judges in 2020 when her administration, citing the need for deep budget cuts, denied requests from 46 out of 49 judges to remain in office beyond the state judges’ retirement age of 70 – a move that previously granted almost routinely.
The dispute became so acrimonious that 10 judges joined forces in two unusual lawsuits against Judge DiFiore and a board of directors that had voted unanimously to let the senior judges go. They accused her of being a victim of age discrimination.
Judge DiFiore, who said the court system is trying to avoid layoffs, had defended the cuts, calling them “the most painful decision yet.”
Mr Chalfen, the court’s spokesman, said when more funds became available last year the senior judges were encouraged to reapply to continue their work and some of them have returned to the bench.
David B. Saxe, a retired Appellate Division judge and now an attorney in private practice whose firm handled one of the judges’ complaints, said Monday that Judge DiFiore “has shown an unnecessary intransigence to any settlement of the case that the judges have offered.” “
Mr Chalfen, the court spokesman, replied: “Difficult decisions are what leaders make. That’s part of running the third branch of government.”
Nicholas Fandos and William K. Rashbaum contributed reporting.