ALBANY - A Commission on Judicial Nomination headed by a former chief judge and counseled by two former clerks of the Court of Appeals has produced what observers say is not only the most diverse group of high court nominees ever, but a list of exceptionally qualified candidates.
On Dec. 1, the commission chaired by former Chief Judge Judith Kaye presented Governor Andrew Cuomo with a list of seven judges and attorneys from which he must select the next Court of Appeals judge. Six of the seven have Ivy League credentials. Three are Appellate Division justices. One is a well-known First Amendment lawyer. Another is a law professor. One is a partner at a large firm. One nominee runs a major human services agency.
"What can you complain about with this list?" asked Vincent Bonventre, an Albany Law School professor and veteran court watcher who has complained about plenty of lists in the past. "If you want people with judicial experience, you've got it. If you want diversity, you've got it. If you want women, you've got it. From their educational background to their career experience, it is a very strong list and different kind of list."
The panel delivered to Cuomo what is undeniably the most diverse list ever from which he will select the successor to Judge Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick (See Profile), the first Hispanic judge on the high court. If Cuomo wants to replace Ciparick with a Hispanic, he has three choices. If he wants to replace her with a Hispanic woman, he has that option. He could appoint the first openly gay member of the court (David Schulz) or the first Asian-American (Kathy Chin). The one thing all seven have in common is they are all, like Cuomo, Democrats.
Bonventre said the list represents not only diversity but quality.
"What strikes you at first glance is the diversity," Bonventre said. "But when you go beyond the names and look at the bios, this is a very, very impressive list. They are really accomplished people."
Victor Kovner, a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine and former chairman of the Fund for Modern Courts, said the strong list is a testament to the merit selection process. He said that with the list Cuomo can't go wrong.
"I think this is a distinguished list of candidates and I am sure the governor will make an outstanding choice," Kovner said. "We have been blessed in this state with the merit selection system for choosing judges of the Court of Appeals and this is just another occasion where we can feel confident we will have an outstanding new member of our highest court."
Senator John Bonacic, R-Mount Hope, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said all the candidates "appear to have impressive backgrounds. I look forward to meeting with whichever one the governor nominates. I don't want to otherwise pre-judge any of them."
Cuomo has between Jan. 1 and Jan. 15 to submit the name of one of the nominees to the state Senate for confirmation. He must choose from the list. The Senate has 30 days after receiving the nomination to confirm or reject his choice.
The Commission on Judicial Nomination is a 12-member panel with unpaid appointees of the governor, chief judge and legislative leaders. It is currently chaired by Kaye, now of counsel to Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and advised by two former Court of Appeals clerks: counsel Stephen Younger, a partner at Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler who clerked for Court of Appeals Judge Hugh Jones, and deputy counsel John Halloran, a partner at Speiser Krause who clerked for Court of Appeals Judge Matthew Jasen.
The panel sought out qualified candidates, holding events in Albany, Rochester and New York City to encourage applications for the Ciparick opening. It also conducted outreach through bar groups, community groups and law schools. The effort paid off with the highest number of applications (75), female applicants (35) and minority applicants (24).
"I am very pleased with the process," Kaye said yesterday. "I think the process worked extremely well. We got an unprecedented number of applicants, which pleases me very much and an unprecedented number of qualified applicants."
While the commission sought applicants from diverse racial, religious, ethnic and geographic backgrounds, Kaye said diversity was not the No. 1 consideration of commission members.
"We have quality first on our list," she said.
According to the former chief judge, her years on the Court of Appeals gave her additional insight about the court and she said she found herself weighing in the evaluation process "how that person would fit and how they would maintain the high quality of the Court of Appeals."
Kaye said the "stellar" and "superbly qualified" nature of the applicants for the Ciparick opening will make the pool of candidates to fill another vacancy all the stronger. The commission is accepting applications until Dec. 18 for a position vacated by the recent death of Judge Theodore Jones Jr. Kaye anticipates that most, if not all, of the applicants for the Ciparick seat will be considered for the Jones opening. The position pays $177,000 annually. Applications are available at www.nysegov.com/cjn.
Carey Dunne, president of the New York City Bar, said the commission produced a list that is both "good and diverse." Dunne said the City Bar is evaluating the candidates and will release its ratings by Dec. 21.
Rivera, Schulz and Abdus-Salaam declined to discuss the application process in detail, except to say that Kaye was welcoming and put them at ease during the interviews.
"She is so people-friendly that it reduces the tension level in the room," Schulz said.
Rivera said she was "just very honored and thrilled to be on the list. It is quite an accomplished list of people."