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Professional Diversity on the New York Court of Appeals

Professional diversity is lacking on New York’s highest court.

Published: October 12, 2021

Earlier this year, the Bren­nan Center published a report on the diversity of judges who sit on states’ highest courts, includ­ing a first-of-its-kind analysis of high court judges’ profes­sional back­grounds. Among high court judges in all 50 states, our analysis found, only a small portion had substan­tial exper­i­ence work­ing on behalf of low-income resid­ents — 7 percent of judges had served as public defend­ers and only 2 percent had worked as civil legal services attor­neys — while 81 percent had worked in private prac­tice and 37 percent were former prosec­utors.

Diverse profes­sional back­grounds are essen­tial to a fair and impar­tial judi­ciary. These exper­i­ences inform a judge’s perspect­ive, ulti­mately inform­ing their decisions and shap­ing the law in the state where the judge sits. A 2021 analysis of federal court decisions in employ­ment litig­a­tion, for example, found that judges with exper­i­ence as prosec­utors or corpor­ate lawyers were less likely to rule in favor of work­ers than other judges. foot­note1_9b934i7 1 Joanna Shep­herd, The Rela­tion­ship between Profes­sional Diversity and Judi­cial Decisions, Demand Justice, 2021, http://demand­justice.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Jobs-Judges-and-Justice-Shep­herd-3–08–21.pdf.

With an upcom­ing vacancy on New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, state lead­ers have star­ted to call atten­tion to the import­ance of profes­sional diversity on the bench. In a Septem­ber letter to the state’s Commis­sion on Judi­cial Nomin­a­tion, State Senate Deputy Major­ity Leader Michael Gianaris wrote that “It is crit­ical there are indi­vidu­als considered who have worked in civil rights, indi­gent defense, hous­ing, and immig­ra­tion consid­er­ing the impact those matters have before the people of New York.”

In light of this call for increased diversity, the Bren­nan Center reviewed the profes­sional back­grounds of the 35 judges who have sat on the New York Court of Appeals for the past 50 years. foot­note2_0a98dwk 2 Our meth­od­o­logy was as follows: We reviewed the offi­cial biograph­ies of all state high court judges and coded their profes­sional affil­i­ations in the follow­ing categor­ies: former judge, private prac­tice/law firm, in-house coun­sel, law clerk, court staff/attor­ney, civil legal services, law enforce­ment (besides prosec­utor), federal govern­ment attor­ney, state/local govern­ment attor­ney, lawyer in governor’s office, lawyer for legis­lature, state legis­lator, local elec­ted offi­cial, nonprofit, public defender, prosec­utor, and other. We coded judges as having belonged to any of these profes­sions if they worked in that field after complet­ing their legal educa­tion (legal intern­ships were not included). We used the follow­ing tier rank­ing of sources: offi­cial biograph­ies; court press releases; campaign pages (if elec­ted); Ballot­pe­dia, LinkedIn, and Wiki­pe­dia; and news reports.  Our review revealed a stark lack of profes­sional diversity on New York’s highest court:

  • The most common profes­sional exper­i­ence for New York Court of Appeals judges in the past 50 years was having served as a judge on a lower court (80 percent), followed by private prac­tice (71 percent) and serving as an attor­ney for state or local govern­ment (37 percent).
  • In the past 50 years, only two judges (6 percent) had exper­i­ence as public defend­ers, and there are currently no former public defend­ers serving on the court. (There have been more judges on the court with exper­i­ence work­ing for law firms on the Vault 100 list of the most pres­ti­gi­ous private firms than there have been judges with exper­i­ence as public defend­ers.)
  • Of the five former prosec­utors to sit on the Court of Appeals bench in the past 50 years (14 percent), three were appoin­ted in the last 10 years and all remain on the bench.
  • Four judges (11 percent) had exper­i­ence work­ing as civil legal services providers, who repres­ent low-income indi­vidu­als in matters such as evic­tion or consumer debt proceed­ings. Only one remains on the bench.
  • Of the seven judges currently on the Court of Appeals,
    • Five have exper­i­ence as law clerks.
    • Four have previ­ously served as judges.
    • Four have exper­i­ence as state/local govern­ment attor­neys.
    • Three are former prosec­utors.
    • Three have exper­i­ence in private prac­tice.
    • One judge on the bench has exper­i­ence in academia, as in-house coun­sel, in civil legal services, in law enforce­ment (apart from having been a prosec­utor), as a local elec­ted offi­cial, and at a non-profit, respect­ively.
    • No judge currently on the bench has worked as a public defender, a state legis­lator, a lawyer for the legis­lature, a lawyer in the governor’s office, or court staff.

End Notes