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Professional Diversity on the New York Court of Appeals

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

Last Updated: July 18, 2022
Published: October 12, 2021

Editor’s note: This resource was updated on July 18, 2022, to account for Judge Shirley Troutman’s appointment to the New York Court of Appeals in January 2022.

Earlier this year, the Bren­nan Center published an updated report on the diversity of judges who sit on states’ highest courts, includ­ing an analysis of high court judges’ profes­sional back­grounds. Among high court judges in all 50 states, our analysis found that 81 percent had worked in private prac­tice and 39 percent were former prosec­utors, while 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.

Diverse profes­sional back­grounds are essen­tial to a fair and impar­tial judi­ciary. These exper­i­ences inform a judge’s perspect­ive, ulti­mately influencing 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_zdtxxrl 1 Joanna Shep­herd, The Rela­tion­ship Between Profes­sional Diversity and Judi­cial Decisions, Demand Justice, 2021,

An upcoming vacancy on New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, has prompted renewed calls for more professional diversity on that court. The Legal Aid Society, for example, released a statement saying, “The absence of a public defender and civil legal services attorney on the Court creates a tremendous gap of knowledge and experience. . . . The public deserves a representative on the bench who is familiar with the struggles that our clients, Black and Latinx New Yorkers, are forced to endure every day.”

State lead­ers have also called atten­tion to the import­ance of profes­sional diversity on the Court of Appeals. Last year, in a Septem­ber letter to the state’s Commis­sion on Judi­cial Nomin­a­tion regarding a previous vacancy on the court, State Senate Deputy Major­ity Leader Michael Gianaris wrote: “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 these calls for increased diversity, the Bren­nan Center reviewed the profes­sional back­grounds of the 36 judges who have sat on the New York Court of Appeals for the past 50 years. footnote2_r3zm7sl 2 Our meth­od­o­logy was as follows: We reviewed the offi­cial biograph­ies of all state high court judges who sat on the New York Court of Appeals over the last 50 years and coded their profes­sional affil­i­ations in the follow­ing categor­ies: former judge, attorney general, academia, private prac­tice/law firm, in-house coun­sel, law clerk, court staff/attor­ney, lobbyist, civil legal services, law enforce­ment (besides prosec­utor), federal govern­ment attor­ney, state/local govern­ment attor­ney, lawyer in governor’s office, lawyer for legis­lature, governor, state legis­lator, other elec­ted offi­cial, nonprofit, public defender, prosec­utor, Vault 100, 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; Ballot­pe­dia and Wiki­pe­dia; and news reports. Our review revealed a stark lack of profes­sional diversity on New York’s highest court: footnote3_j1l274b 3 These figures include Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, who announced plans to retire at the end of August 2022. Before reaching the bench, DiFiore worked as a lower court judge, a local government attorney, a prosecutor, and in private practice.

  • 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 (81 percent), followed by private prac­tice (69 percent) and serving as an attor­ney for state or local govern­ment (39 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 six former prosec­utors to sit on the Court of Appeals in the past 50 years (17 percent), four were appoin­ted in the last 10 years, and all four 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 worked as state or local govern­ment attor­neys;
    • four previ­ously served as judges in lower courts;
    • four worked as law clerks;
    • four worked as prosec­utors;
    • three worked in private prac­tice, including two at Vault 100 law firms;
    • two worked as federal government attorneys;
    • two have experience in academia; and
    • one judge worked in civil legal services and at a separate legal nonprofit, and one worked in law enforce­ment (apart from having been a prosec­utor).

End Notes