Will Hochul's Ethics Overhaul Address New York's Shady Judicial Selection Process?
Progressives are cooperating with a corrupt system rather than trying to reform it, potentially letting a rare opportunity for meaningful change pass them by.
When Andrew Cuomo nominated Madeline Singas - the district attorney of Nassau County - to the New York Court of Appeals in May, it sparked alarm among advocates of criminal justice reform. Singas was a notorious right-wing zealot with a history of accused and confirmed misconduct. As a young prosecutor in Queens, she may have deliberately hid exculpatory evidence from defense counsel in a murder case, leading to the conviction of three men who spent 20 years in prison as a result. As Nassau DA, she sought lengthy sentences for nonviolent offenders, and worked to undermine New York’s 2019 bail reform by training prosecutors to exploit its loopholes and continue locking up as many poor people as possible. Now, she was on the cusp of a 14-year appointment to the highest court in the state.
In a bid to sink her nomination, a group of progressive lawyers launched a fiery media campaign to dissuade the State Senate from confirming her. Though they failed to keep her off the bench, the Stop Singas coalition did keep the margin unusually close by creating a sense of political risk for her supporters. Peter Martin, a lawyer with the group, said at the time that a vote to confirm Singas would “undermine the rights of the accused, protections for workers and tenants, and much more. This harm will be directly and inexcusably caused by senators who refused to stand against her.”
Directly perhaps, but inexcusably, not so much. Just months after vowing to impose consequences on Singas enablers, the coalition now is now helping her top ally in the senate rehabilitate his image: Mike Gianaris, the chamber’s deputy leader. Gianaris aggressively whipped votes for Singas within the senate’s Democratic conference, and defended her to his colleagues against the barrage of criticism in the press.
In July, New York’s Commission on Judicial Nomination - the entity responsible for selecting potential nominees to the Court of Appeals - began soliciting applicants to replace Judge Eugene Fahey, who will soon reach the mandatory retirement age of 70. The Albany Times Union reported that Gianaris wrote a letter to CJN last week in an attempt to influence this process, imploring the body to assemble a more diverse and progressive pool of candidates than it has in the past:
"I am urging this panel to seek out an increasingly diverse slate of recommended nominees and seek meaningful public input as part of your process to ensure the bench is representative of the people it serves…It is my strong belief your future recommended candidates should add to the diversity of the court – looking beyond simply career jurists and prosecutors – including attorneys from a variety of professional backgrounds, personal lived experiences, and areas of the state."
It’s quite the turnaround, but hardly unprecedented for the nimble legislator. The Times Union story later appeared on Twitter, where it drew plaudits from Gianaris’ former detractors. Noah Rosenblum, a law professor at NYU who penned an anti-Singas op-ed for the Daily News, now offered praise for her most stalwart defender: “Some meaningful leadership by Senator Gianaris here. I hope his colleagues follow his lead.” Even Peter Martin found it in his heart to excuse the inexcusable: “Thank you to Senator Gianaris for this statement and his advocacy around this seat.” Others affiliated with the Stop Singas effort retweeted the article as well.
You don’t have to be a comms expert to know a coordinated rollout when you see one. First, advocates for a particular issue identify a high-profile validator. Next, they enlist a friendly outlet willing to run a press release as a news story, stripped of unflattering context. Everyone then works together to settle on messaging that satisfies the needs of both parties. Finally, once the story is published, the advocates promote it on social media using similar language to ensure narrative consistency. I reached out to the Stop Singas organizers last week to ask if they’d met with Gianaris recently, or if they were involved in crafting his letter to CJN. No one responded, so I’ll take that as a yes.
Presumably, the coalition agreed to absolve Gianaris in exchange for his help with securing a progressive replacement for Fahey, though it’s unclear what sort of help he could provide. CJN is under no obligation to heed his request for a more left-leaning pool of candidates. Kathy Hochul certainly doesn’t seem inclined to choose the leftiest one they send her; she won’t even endorse her own party’s nominee for mayor of Buffalo. Also unclear is whether Gianaris has enough pull with Hochul to get her to deviate from her moderate instincts. In an interview with Ben Max just last month, Gianaris equivocated when asked if Hochul would be a good governor, and expressed hope that Tish James would run in 2022. Pretty ballsy to then go asking for favors.
But whatever the coalition thinks Gianaris can deliver, their strategy is short-sighted. As I’ve reported, CJN is rife with corruption and operates as an arm of the governor’s office, not the independent authority that our state constitution envisions. As long as that’s the case, New York’s ruling class will never permit the left to influence judicial nominations in a way that fundamentally challenges their power. Rather than schilling for concessions from this broken system, the left should pressure Hochul and the legislature to pursue reforms that will curtail political influence over the judiciary.
If there were ever a time to do it, it’s right now, when Hochul is under maximum pressure to respond. Public dissatisfaction with the drama in Albany is high. So is media interest in Hochul’s ability to navigate a bureaucracy packed full of Cuomo loyalists. She will almost certainly face the sitting attorney general in a competitive primary, ensuring continued attention on Cuomo’s culture of corruption. Finally, as Hochul leans on the Nassau County establishment to stay in office - the same one from which Madeline Singas emerged - inaction on this issue would expose her to allegations of favor-trading to lock down support from critical allies.
Regardless of what the left decides to do, the media, good government groups, and state legislators have their own roles to play. So far, Gotham Gazette and City & State are the only two mainstream outlets that have picked up this story, and even then only in passing. More journalists should press Hochul on how she plans to clean up New York’s judiciary. Ditto for civil society groups that can do so with a degree of remove from partisan warfare. Elected officials have also expressed interest in codifying changes to the way state government operates to root out Cuomo’s pernicious influence. Judicial nominations would be a great place to start
Upon assuming office, Hochul announced a 45-day transition period during which she would decide which Cuomo-appointed officials would remain in their posts and which would be purged for complicity in his abuses. Concurrently, she also pledged to assemble a list of priorities for restoring ethics in government. The transition is set to conclude this week, which is the perfect opportunity to raise the issue of judicial integrity with Hochul’s administration.
Based on my reporting, I’d recommend the following urgently needed reforms:
Ensure CJN is properly performing its duties. Applicants for open judgeships on the Court of Appeals must furnish CJN with a sworn financial statement. For applicants who are sitting elected officials, vetting this document should at a minimum involve comparing it with their annual financial disclosure forms. This would have signaled to CJN that Singas routinely failed to report required information during her time as Nassau DA, such as the business relationship between her husband’s employer and Nassau County, as well as rental income from her various properties. If Singas hid this information deliberately, she’d be guilty of a misdemeanor.
Of course, Singas could have misrepresented her finances to CJN too, so there may not have been any discrepancies between the documents. But even if she did, CJN should have been able to uncover that. I did it with Google and a FOIL request. It has a paid staff and subpoena power. CJN is either missing major red flags or letting them slide, neither of which is appropriate.
Enforce prohibitions against conflicts of interest at CJN. Steven M. Cohen, Cuomo’s personal attorney on the sexual harassment matter, was a CJN commissioner when it selected the candidates to fill two vacancies on the Court of Appeals earlier this year. In other words, Cuomo’s own lawyer was involved in picking the judges that may have had to vote on his client’s removal from office. It’s outrageous not only that a conflict of this magnitude was permitted, but that Hochul tried to sweep it under the rug by quietly ousting Cohen from CJN with no public reckoning.
Hochul should commit to operating with greater transparency, and detail how she plans prevent similar conflicts of interest moving forward. She should also explain why Cohen was drummed out of his roles at CJN and Empire State Development, but allowed to retain his post Port Authority.
Require CJN to follow its own rules. New York’s Judiciary Law empowers CJN to set the internal procedures by which it operates. By their own standards, CJN must notify the public when a vacancy occurs on the commission, but it hasn’t done so for nearly a decade. This makes it needlessly difficult to track who was serving on it and when.
End vanity appointments to CJN. Earlier this year, one of CJN’s commissioners was Simone M. Levinson, the ballet dancer wife of real estate tycoon David Levinson. Levinson has no experience with the law or public policy, though she is a fixture on the Hamptons art scene. Together, the couple contributed $88,000 to Cuomo’s various campaigns for governor. CJN ’s work is too important for seats to be handed out like door prizes to wealthy donors with no relevant expertise.
Require the governor to fulfill her own obligations with respect to judicial appointments. According to Article 3A of the Judiciary Law, once a nominee is confirmed to the Court of Appeals, the governor must release the sworn financial statement the nominee provided to CJN. Cuomo failed to do so after Singas was confirmed in June. Hochul should produce this document immediately.
Investigate Madeline Singas for potential misconduct. The fact that Singas failed to make required financial disclosures as Nassau DA raises the possibility she may have knowingly violated the law. Considering that Singas herself investigated other Nassau officials over alleged lapses in financial disclosure, it’s all the more imperative that an appropriate entity look into whether she did as well.
Moreover, if Singas made similar omissions in the sworn financial statement she provided to CJN, she may have perjured herself during her own confirmation process. This would be an egregious and disqualifying act, and the public has a right to know if that’s what occurred.
Make judges’ financial disclosures accessible online. Every statewide elected official in New York, as well as every member of the state legislature, is required to have their financial information available online. It’s only logical that judges on the Court of Appeals, which has statewide jurisdiction, should be subject to the same requirement.