Monday, January 18, 2016

Janet DiFiore, New York Chief Judge Nominee

Janet Marie DiFiore
photo, Mike Groll/AP
Janet Marie DiFiore, the Westchester County District Attorney, was nominated by Governor Andrew Cuomo's to be New York's Chief Judge.

The nomination, announced on December 1 of last year, is now old news for those who follow state politics or legal developments. But even for those who do, and a fortiori for those who might not--or at least not as closely as do political and court junkies (of which I am certainly one)--it's probably worthwhile to recount some of what we know. Who is Janet DiFiore? What does it mean to be Chief Judge? How does the selection process work? And other related matters.

Let's look now at DiFiore herself. Who is she and what commends her for the center seat on New York's high court and for the leadership of the state's judicial branch? Here is an outline of her personal and professional background gathered from news accounts, her interviews, and my private conversations with some who know her.

(Disclosure: From all I know, she is a superb choice. Those I know and trust who are familiar with her, as well as very familiar with the Court, the nomination process, or both, have spoken glowingly to me about her and her fitness to be Chief Judge. I have spoken to her and extended my congratulations.)

First, some personal background:
  • She was born and resides in Westchester County. [For the non-New Yorkers, that's just north of New York City.]
  • She is 60 years of age. [That means she will be able to serve for 10 years until forced to retire by New York's (moronic) mandatory age retirement for Judges.]
  • She is the mother of 3 grown children.
  • Her husband, Dennis Glazer, whom she apparently met on her first day of law school, is a now-retired prominent New York City attorney.
  • She is the only child of an Italian immigrant family and would be New York's first Italian-American Chief Judge.
  • Two formative influences she has often mentioned:
    • growing up surrounded by a large extended family who all lived close by, and 
    • a relative's confrontation with the criminal justice system convinced her at a young age to become a lawyer--specifically, a prosecutor.
Education and Early Career:
  • Graduated from C.W. Post College on Long Island.
  • Graduated from St. John's Law School in Queens.
  • During law school, she interned with the Westchester County DA's Office.
  • Upon graduation, she worked as an ADA (assistant district attorney--i.e., a prosecutor), 1981-1987.
  • She then worked part time at a law firm while her children were young, 1987-1993.
  • Chief of the Narcotics Bureau of the Westchester County DA's Office, 1993-1998.
  • County Court Judge, 1998-2002 (presiding over major criminal cases and, on assignment to state Supreme Court and Family Court, over civil lawsuits and family law cases).
  • State Supreme Court Justice, 2003-2005 (presiding over a wide variety of cases and, upon appointment by then-Chief Judge Kaye, serving as Supervising Judge of the criminal courts in 5 counties north of New York City).
District Attorney
  • Upon winning election, she took office as the Westchester County DA in 2006.
  • She has won 3 elections to that office, the last time running unopposed.
  • She has served in that office for 10 years, 2006-present.
  • Some highlights:
    • The Deskovic Case: upon becoming DA, she personally insured access to DNA evidence (which her predecessor declined to do) which then exonerated Jeffrey Deskovic, who had been wrongfully convicted of rape and murder and had spent 16 years in prison, and identified the true guilty party.
    • Changed party affiliation from Republican to Democrat.
    • Co-Chair of the Justice Task Force, appointed by Chief Judge Lippman, to examine wrongful convictions and make recommendations, resulting in numerous substantive and procedural proposals, some of which have already been enacted in legislation.
    • Served as Chair of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), appointed by Governor Cuomo, when the commission was first established in 2011 until 2013.
    • Recipient of the first Mario Cuomo Award by the National Italian American Foundation in 2015.
Chief Judge Nominee
  • Last year, she applied for the position of Chief Judge and was on the list of 7 candidates recommended to the Governor by the Commission on Judicial Nomination, chaired by the late Chief Judge Kaye.
  • She was then selected from the list by Governor Cuomo as his nominee to replace the retiring Chief Judge Lippman.
  • She will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee and will be voted on for confirmation this Wednesday, January 20, 2016.

Recap of Particularly Relevant Experience
  • Experience as a trial attorney:
    • she prosecuted criminal cases as an ADA, 
    • she supervised other prosecutors trying cases in her capacity as a bureau chief, and
    • the same throughout her 10 year tenure as District Attorney. 
  • Experience as a Judge:
    • she served as a County Court Judge (presiding over criminal cases), 
    • was designated to Family Court as well during that time (family matters), and
    • served as a  State Supreme Court Justice over a period of 8 years (a vast variety of major cases).
  • Experience as an Administrative Leader:
    • she headed the narcotics bureau of the Westchester County DA's Office early in her career,
    • she supervised the criminal courts in the 9th Judicial District (i.e., 5 counties) while a state Supreme Court Justice, and
    • she has been the District Attorney of Westchester County for 10 years, leading an office of over 100 prosecuting attorneys and over 100 non-legal support staff.
There is no claim here that this outline identifies all there is to know to assess Janet DiFiore as the Chief Judge nominee. It does include much that I view as important in making an informed assessment. Admittedly, for me personally, private conversations with those I trust, who do know her, have been the most persuasive in my conclusion that Governor Cuomo has made a splendid choice.