New York's chief judge to step down

New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Janet DiFiore at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y., Jan. 9, 2019. (AP File Photo)

The chief judge of the Court of Appeals — New York's highest court — will step down at the end of August after more than six years on the bench, she announced on Monday.

Judge Janet DiFiore, 66, said in a letter to her colleagues that she will "move on to the next chapter of my professional life." She did not elaborate on what she planned to do next.

The state's chief judge presides over the Court of Appeals and also oversees the state's entire court system

In her resignation letter, DiFiore cited her work tackling case backlogs systemwide and delivering high-quality court services, even during the pandemic.

"(T)he New York state courts not only remained open and functioning but were transformed from a massive, complex in-person operating system into an effective virtual model capable of meeting the demand for our services," she wrote.

DiFiore, a former Westchester County district attorney, is an appointee of then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

In a statement, Gov. Kathy Hochul, who succeeded Cuomo when he resigned amid scandal, thanked DiFiore for her service.

"From the Westchester District Attorney's Office to the Court of Appeals, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore has dedicated her career to the people of New York," Hochul said. "Chief Judge DiFiore's leadership of our state court system — especially during the unprecedented times of the COVID-19 pandemic — has been a critical asset."

One of the Court of Appeals' most significant decisions during DiFiore's tenure was handed down in April, when a majority rejected new congressional maps that had widely been seen as favoring Democrats. The judges said lawmakers gerrymandered the maps in violation of a 2014 amendment to the state constitution. The ruling, and DiFiore's opinion, angered many Democrats.

In a statement, state Sen. Brad Hoylman, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, noted DiFiore's leadership during an "extremely difficult period" and said her administrative reforms will have "a lasting impact. But he appeared to welcome her resignation.

"Unfortunately, however, over the last several years, the Court of Appeals has become increasingly out of step with the needs and desires of New Yorkers on issues such as workers' rights, criminal justice, and tenants' rights," Hoylman said. "It's time for a new direction in our judicial branch."

In a statement, The Legal Aid Society, the nonprofit that represents low-income New Yorkers in the courts, thanked DiFiore for her efforts to improve the court system. And the group called on the governor to nominate someone who has served as a public defender or civil legal services attorney.

"The absence of a public defender and civil legal services attorney on the Court creates a tremendous gap of knowledge and experience, which is especially problematic given the critical issues confronting the Court and our legal system as a whole," Legal Aid said. "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." 

Hochul said she looks forward to reviewing the recommendations from the state commission that screens candidates for the top court.

With The Associated Press.