ALBANY - Court of Appeals nominee Jenny Rivera, a law professor, yesterday endured four hours of unusually aggressive questioning from Senate Judiciary Committee members concerned about her lack of judicial or practical legal experience, an academic record focused narrowly on social justice and scholarly writings that some lawmakers found abstract and unclear.
In a rare move, the panel delayed a vote until this morning to provide members time to digest the testimony.
Rivera, who would be the first law professor in at least several decades to go directly from academia to the high court, spent hours fielding questions and attempting to persuade the committee that she would be an objective judge, and not one who would use the court to advance a liberal social agenda.
"The Court of Appeals is not a legislative body," she said. "The Court of Appeals has no role in drafting legislation, telling any legislative body how to go about its business. That is not the role of the Court of Appeals… The role of the court is to decide the cases and issues that come before it based on the law… It is not in any sense a super legislature."
Rivera, who teaches at the City University of New York School of Law, spoke of the intellectual parallels in academic discourse and appellate jurisprudence, and relayed a Horatio Alger story of her upbringing by her poor Puerto Rican mother.
If confirmed, the 52-year-old Democrat would become the second Hispanic to serve on the court, replacing Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick, who retired on Dec. 31.
But Rivera struggled to get past the fact that she has taken only two cases to jury verdict, argued only two appeals and, other than serving a stint as an administrative law judge, has no judicial experience.
Although two recent Court of Appeals judgesretired Chief Judge Judith Kaye and incumbent Judge Robert Smithcame to the court without judicial experience, both had decades of experience as practicing litigators.
Rivera worked early in her career as a Legal Aid Society attorney and as an administrative law judge, clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor for a year when the judge was on the Southern District bench and served as a special state attorney general for civil rights for a year and a half.
But almost all of Rivera's career has been in academia, and while she has published prodigiously, her writings almost exclusively deal with social justice issues, especially as they relate to the Hispanic community. Her writings do not cover the wide range of criminal and civil issues that the court decides.
Over the course of an afternoon Rivera engaged with committee members, fielding the most probing and occasionally skeptical questions from Republican members.