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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_b3w2uzy 1 Joanna Shep­herd, The Rela­tion­ship Between Profes­sional Diversity and Judi­cial Decisions, Demand Justice, 2021, https://demandjustice.org/report/.

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_dj77oti 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_j8r8lj3 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