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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_dlgoi5o 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_g8g5pdl 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.

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