New York Democrats: Pack the Court (of Appeals)
New documents suggest that Madeline Singas committed felony perjury last year. Democrats should impeach her and reclaim the court from its right-wing majority.
Last week, New York’s chief judge Janet DiFiore announced her resignation from the Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state. Word of her departure caught many by surprise. DiFiore will not reach the mandatory retirement age for another three years, and there were no indications that she’d been considering an early exit. But it wasn’t long before her motives became clear: DiFiore was under investigation by the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct for improperly interfering in the disciplinary proceedings of court employees. In all likelihood, she decided to quit before the commission could fire her.
DiFiore’s resignation has the potential to dramatically reshape New York politics. As the leader of the court’s 4-3 conservative majority, she’s played an important role in safeguarding the interests of New York’s ruling class. Now, progressive activists and legislators are hoping to pressure Governor Kathy Hochul into naming a successor who will move the court further to the left. But that might be easier said than done.
Hochul isn’t quite Andrew Cuomo, of course, who had a fondness for openly right-wing judges. Her first appointment to the Court of Appeals earlier this year was Shirley Troutman, who seems to be shaping up as a conventional liberal. But Hochul was unmoved by calls to name a public defender to the court, and there was no political will in the State Senate to force her to choose a more left-wing jurist. Plus, she’s likely to favor a more conservative candidate to replace DiFiore, given the dominant influence that chief judges exercise over the court’s jurisprudence.
But I’d like to pitch Governor Hochul on not just naming one strong liberal to the Court of Appeals, but naming two of them. To open up a second vacancy, Democrats should impeach and remove another member of the court’s conservative bloc: former Nassau County district attorney Madeline Singas. It’s admittedly a long shot, but I think there’s a case to be made for it that even establishment Democrats might find persuasive. It starts with the fact that this newsletter has obtained documents that suggest Singas committed perjury during her confirmation proceedings last year.
When a vacancy arises on the Court of Appeals, anyone interested in filling the seat must submit an application to the Commission on Judicial Nomination, along with a sworn financial statement that records their assets, liabilities, and potential conflicts of interest. The commission then reviews the applicants and forwards a shortlist of finalists to the governor, who must choose a nominee from among that list. Finally, the State Senate must confirm the governor’s choice by a majority vote.
Once the nominee is confirmed, the governor is required by law to make their financial statement available to the public. Last November, I requested a copy of Singas’ statement from the Executive Chamber under New York’s Freedom of Information Law, and in May, it finally arrived.
After reviewing this document, it seems clear to me that Singas not only omitted important details about her finances, but also lied about not having any investments with the potential to create conflicts of interest. In New York, deliberately providing false information on a subscribed legal instrument while under oath constitutes perjury in the second degree, a class E felony. Before we examine these omissions in detail, it’s important to note that Singas has a history of this sort of behavior.
Last year, Vulgar Marxism reported at length on the fact that Singas routinely misrepresented her finances on the disclosure forms that she was required to file as district attorney of Nassau County between 2016 and 2021:
“Filers are required to list any employment they or their immediate family members have that generates more than $2,500 per year in income. In section 7, filers are required to list ‘any interest you, your spouse, or your dependent children have in any contract involving the County or any village, town, or municipality located within the County.’ Each year, Singas noted that her husband, Theo Apostolou, is employed by the shipping and e-commerce firm Pitney Bowes…and stated that section 7 was not applicable to her.
But in fact, Pitney Bowes is a vendor that serves dozens of local government entities. According to the Nassau County Open Checkbook database, the company and two subsidiaries - Pitney Bowes Global Financial Services and Pitney Bowes Bank - received over $1.6 million in payments from the county between 2016 and 2021.”
Almost $50,000 of these payments were issued by the DA’s office in connection with contracts initiated during Singas’ tenure, meaning that her office was forwarding new business to Apostolou’s employer. According to Rebecca Roiphe - Trustee Professor of Law at New York Law School and an expert in legal ethics - while these contracts may very well have been permissible under state law for various reasons, Singas was still obligated to report them. “Disclosure is extremely important,” Roiphe told me last September. “You have to disclose a lot more than what would create a prohibited conflict of interest.”
For this reason, Singas may have violated Article 18 of the General Municipal Law, which requires local officials to disclose all potential conflicts of interest, prohibited or otherwise. Failure to do so constitutes a misdemeanor. Singas’ guilt would depend on whether or not she had personal knowledge of the fact that her office was doing business with Pitney Bowes. “There’s a question of how much she knew when,” Roiphe explained. “You have to report something as soon as you become aware of it, but you can't be charged if you didn’t know what was going on.”
Singas also failed to disclose income from rental properties that she and Apostolou own, including a two-unit building in Astoria and a six-unit building in Ridgewood:
“The only year for which Singas disclosed receiving rental income from [the Astoria building] was 2019. In 2020, she listed her affiliation with the LLC that now owns the property, but didn’t report any rental income from it as she did the year before.
Moreover, Singas never reported any rental income from [the Ridgewood building]…despite the fact that the LLC that owns the property is registered at her home in Manhasset.”
In addition to these properties, I’ve also been able to identify a two-unit building in Bayside owned by Apostolou and his brother-in-law, Peter Conelias, as well as a single-family home in Suffolk County owned by Singas and her sister Effie. The function of these properties is less clear than those in Astoria and Ridgewood, but if Singas wasn’t drawing income from them, then she wasn’t obligated to report them under the standards outlined on the disclosure form.
While Singas might have violated Article 18 of the General Municipal Law as DA, the Nassau County disclosure forms are not sworn statements, meaning that she didn’t perjure herself. This brings us to the financial statement that Singas submitted to the Commission on Judicial Nomination last year. That document is a sworn statement, which is probably why the cover sheet includes the following warning:
“All communications to the Commission…shall be confidential and privileged and not available to any person, except as otherwise provided in Article 3-A, and except for the purposes of Article 210 of the Penal Law, which relates to perjury.”
As I mentioned, the crime of perjury in the second degree involves three elements: (1) deliberately (2) making false statements (3) in a subscribed legal instrument while under oath. This document is just such an instrument, so that takes care of (3). Next, let’s establish that certain statements Singas made in it were deliberately false.
On the financial questionnaire that the commission provides to candidates, question five asks them to list “all sources of income…for you for the last calendar year.” Singas lists the salary that she drew as Nassau DA and a brokerage account that she has with JP Morgan Chase, but not any rental income from the Astoria property, which she co-owns with her sister. It’s possible that only the sister is currently collecting rent on it, but as I wrote last year, there are good reasons to be skeptical that this is the case.
Singas also doesn’t disclose Apostolou’s salary from Pitney Bowes or any rental income from the Ridgewood property. This might be justified under a narrow reading of the question’s language, but it certainly doesn’t conform with the commission’s request that candidates make “as fulsome a disclosure as possible, so as to address any circumstance that a reasonable person would find relevant to the performance of the duties of Associate Judge of the Court of Appeals.” The financial dealings of a judge’s spouse are clearly relevant to the performance of their duties, in that they have the potential to create conflicts of interest.
Regardless, other portions of the questionnaire more clearly require the disclosure of Apostolou’s real estate holdings. Question six asks candidates to list “all assets and liabilities, both tangible and intangible, in which a direct or indirect interest is held by you.” At the very least, a person has an indirect interest in their spouse’s assets and liabilities. But considering that Singas and Apostolou’s finances are totally blended - shared bank accounts, retirement plans, insurance policies - she clearly has a direct stake in her husband’s investments.
Yet the only real estate assets that Singas lists are her primary residence in Nassau County, the Astoria property, and the Suffolk County property; the Ridgewood and Bayside properties go unmentioned. Under liabilities, Singas only lists the mortgage on her primary residence from JP Morgan Chase. But public records show that in 2009, Apostolou, Conelias, and a woman named Vasiliki Orsaris took out a $530,000 mortgage on the Bayside property with M&T Bank. In 2017, Apostolou and Conelias took out a $700,000 mortgage on the Ridgewood property with Flushing Bank.
Once again, Singas has chosen to disclose only those financial interests that bear her own name, but unlike earlier portions of the questionnaire, the language here doesn’t seem to permit this narrow reading. Question fifteen removes all remaining ambiguity when it explicitly asks if the candidate’s spouse “has any assets, liabilities or other financial interests that would be or would appear to be pertinent to your service on the Court of Appeals.” Singas responds with a single word: “No.”
In fact, the court frequently weighs in on cases impacting tenant-landlord relations. Back when it had a liberal majority under former chief judge Jonathan Lippman, it promulgated a series of major pro-tenant rulings. After Lippman stepped down in 2016, former governor Andrew Cuomo appointed a conservative ally - Westchester County district attorney Janet DiFiore - to replace him, initiating the court’s turn to the right. Since then, it’s issued a series of major pro-landlord rulings, including one that struck down key elements of the state’s landmark 2019 rent reform package.
In summary, there’s no doubt that Singas gave false information on her sworn financial statement. I count six major errors connected to her family’s real estate holdings, as reflected in the chart below. It isn’t credible that Singas was unaware of these investments, nor is it credible that she could have interpreted the language of the questionnaire as not requiring their disclosure. For all these reasons, there’s a strong case that Singas committed felony perjury during her own confirmation proceedings to sit on the Court of Appeals.
A known criminal such as Madeline Singas is clearly unsuitable for service as a judge on the highest court in New York. But rather than wait for the long arm of the law to catch up with her, Democrats in the state legislature could resolve this matter quickly by impeaching Singas and removing her from the bench. Under the state constitution, it takes a two-thirds vote in both chambers to toss a judge off the Court of Appeals. With two supermajorities in Albany, Democrats could do it on a party-line vote.
There’d be hue and cry from the right, of course, but when isn’t there? Besides, that’s a small price to pay for the chance to fix one of New York Democrats’ most pitiful fumbles in recent memory: allowing the Court of Appeals to hijack the redistricting process earlier this year. In April, the court ruled 4-3 that the maps promulgated by the state legislature were unconstitutional and appointed a special master to redraw them, with Singas and DiFiore in the majority. Democrats will have around five fewer seats in Congress after the midterms as a result.
It’s too late to roll back this judicial power grab before election day, but there’s no reason to accept it as a fait accompli. If Governor Hochul replaces Singas and DiFiore with more sensible judges, Democrats can relitigate this matter right back up to the Court of Appeals next year and get its previous ruling reversed.
It wouldn’t be unprecedented for a state’s high court to order the adoption of new legislative maps in a non-redistricting year. In 2018, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court ruled that the state’s US House districts were biased toward Republicans and redrew them more favorably for Democrats. In this case, the Court of Appeals wouldn’t have to come up with new maps, it could simply reinstate the old ones drawn by the state legislature and signed by the governor this year.
Though rare, the Court of Appeals has on occasion subordinated the principle of stare decisis to the necessity of revising its jurisprudence when circumstances demanded it. As former chief judge Sol Wachtler remarked in a 1985 article for the St. John’s Law Review: “This approach to the application of stare decisis in New York indicates that the doctrine is ‘moral and intellectual, rather than arbitrary and inflexible.’” He then describes the types of cases in which the court has been most willing to reverse itself:
“Courts more readily reexamine rules they themselves have promulgated…Interpretations of constitutional, as opposed to statutory, provisions are also more properly changed by the judiciary, in light of the far greater difficulty of securing a corrective amendment of a constitution.
In the realm of procedural, as opposed to substantive law, courts have overruled precedent with perhaps the least reservation, for the policies that compel strict adherence to stare decisis are simply not as strong when substantive rights are not involved.”
All of the questions at issue in the redistricting case were matters of constitutional interpretation. Moreover, the remedy that the majority came up with - appointing a special master to redraw New York’s legislative maps - is contemplated nowhere in either the state constitution or statutory law; it’s entirely of the court’s own invention. Even on its face, such a ruling is a strong candidate for reversal.
While the petitioners who sued the state legislature did allege certain violations of their substantive rights, all three of the court’s liberal judges rejected these claims. In her dissent, the court’s most left-wing jurist - based queen and vaccine refusenik Jenny Rivera - also rejected the petitioners’ procedural claims, and was the most forceful in her condemnation of the majority decision. She went so far as to argue that the court had flagrantly violated the state constitution by usurping the legitimate prerogatives of the legislature in the absence of any malfeasance. Rowan Wilson, another member of the liberal bloc, concurred in full.
However, Shirley Troutman did agree with the majority that the state legislature committed procedural violations in the redistricting process. She argued for throwing out the maps they drew and replacing them with the ones drawn by New York’s independent redistricting commission - even though the dysfunction and failure of that commission is what led to the petitioners’ suit in the first place.
This is why Democrats cannot simply replace DiFiore with a moderate liberal if they want to relitigate this case. Right now, there are - at most - only two judges on the Court of Appeals who might be willing to issue such a swift and dramatic reversal of precedent. Even two more Shirley Troutmans wouldn’t do them any good. To fully reclaim New York’s highest court from the forces of reaction, they need to install two more strong liberal judges, which means they need to impeach Madeline Singas and remove her from the bench.
Everyone knows that the executive of the State of New York is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie, and that Kathy Hochul is the chairwoman of the board. Her base is identical to Andrew Cuomo’s, and she answers to capital just as reliably as he did. Naturally, she’ll be reluctant to hand over the state’s highest court to a liberal majority. After all, the Lippman Court cost her donors a pretty penny between 2009 and 2016.
But does she really want to spend the next four years in Andrew Cuomo’s shadow? Recall that just days before the court’s conservative bloc commandeered New York’s redistricting process, Cuomo penned an editorial urging them to do just that - all while excoriating Hochul’s record since she took office. Janet DiFiore might be out, but that still leaves three of Cuomo’s sleeper agents on the highest court in New York, waiting for another opportunity to sabotage Hochul’s agenda.
Remember also that Cuomo appointed two of them - Madeline Singas and Anthony Cannataro - in June 2021, when he was facing the possibility of impeachment over allegations of sexual harassment. Since Court of Appeals judges serve on the jury in the event of the governor’s impeachment, that means he was literally handpicking his own potential jurors. Even more so than the other conservatives, Singas and Cannataro were chosen not for their professional merit or personal integrity, but for their fealty to a disgraced politician.
If Kathy Hochul really wants her own term of governor, she needs to play a little institutional hardball and purge the Court of Appeals of her predecessor’s lingering influence, starting with Madeline Singas. And if she wants to undo some of the most toxic elements of his legacy, she needs to pack the court with progressive judges who are willing to do the job.
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