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Senate To Miss Deadline To Approve Court Pick

NYS Capitol

The New York Senate will likely miss a deadline to approve Governor Andrew Cuomo’s latest choice for the state’s high court.  As a result, there will be six judges instead of seven on the court come December.

The vacancy on the state’s highest court is occurring because the 14-year term of Judge Victoria Graffeo expires at the end of November.  Graffeo, a widely respected Republican chosen by former Governor George Pataki, could have served for eight more years before reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70, had Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, chosen to reappoint her.

Instead, Cuomo chose a Democrat, Judge Leslie Stein, a mid-level appeals court judge from Albany. The choice would give the court a Democratic majority for the first time since the 1990’s.  During the two weeks that Cuomo chose to delay his decision, a number of the governor’s allies issued press releases saying she was too conservative on issues like gay marriage and women’s rights.

Vince Bonventre, Albany Law School Professor and Court of Appeals expert, says while Justice Stein is considered a very well qualified judge, many in the legal community were disappointed, however that Judge Graffeo did not get reappointed. He says she was not really a polarizing figure.

“We’re not talking a Justice Scalia or a Justice Thomas, “said Bonventre. “She’s a typical upstate moderate Republican.”

Cuomo delayed his choice for two weeks, saying he did want the State Senate to have to come back before the November elections for what could be politically charged confirmation hearings. The appointment was made on October 17, and the Senate had 30 days to hold hearings. Perhaps taking its cue from the governor, the Senate has decided to also delay the process. Technically, both are breaking state law, but Bonventre says there’s no real penalties. But he says it’s the first time he can recall a governor and the Senate breaking the deadlines for court picks.

At the time of the appointment, Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos had urged Cuomo to keep Judge Graffeo. Judge Stein is likely to face some questions from the Senate GOP, who will be fully in charge of the chamber come January.  

Cuomo has now appointed three Democrats to the court. He will have a chance to replace the other four judges before his second term as governor is up.

Bonventre says Cuomo’s father, former Governor Mario Cuomo, also had the chance to pick every judge on the high court. Mario Cuomo chose as many Republicans as Democrats.  

“With his first three appointees, two of them were Republicans,” said Bonventre. Andrew Cuomo has so far appointed three Democrats.

Bonventre says Andrew Cuomo still has a chance to continue to tradition of political diversity on the court.

Since Judge Graffeo’s term expires at the end of November,  just six judges, instead of seven, will preside over the December court session.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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