Judging the judge: How to vet the state’s new chief judge

When New York State Chief Judge Janet DiFiore submitted her resignation letter on July 28, it started a tightly scripted statutory calendar to seat her replacement, who will not only lead the often fractured seven-judge Court of Appeals but run the entire judicial branch of the state. Big job.

The Court of Appeals is the top bench, the highest arbiter of New York law. (State Supreme Court is the bottom level; don’t be confused.) Only two states call their top court thus, and soon it will be only one, as 75% of Maryland voters just approved a constitutional amendment to rebrand their high court the Supreme Court.

On Wednesday, two days before the allowed 120 days since the vacancy was determined, the dozen members of the state Commission on Judicial Nomination published a list of seven highly qualified lawyers and judges to succeed DiFiore. Gov. Hochul must select a name off the list “no sooner than 15 days nor later than 30 days.” Her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, sometimes broke that timing portion of the law.

The nomination then goes to the state Senate, which must have a floor vote within 30 days. Last year, on Hochul’s nomination of Associate Judge Shirley Troutman, the Senate failed to vote within the required timeframe. The Senate must follow the law — or change it — not ignore it. The senators’ excuse for dilly-dallying was they were out of session, but the law accounts for that: If the Senate is not in session, “the governor shall make an interim appointment.”

This time, the Democratic leaders of the Senate say they will be rigorous in questioning the nominee, as the U.S. Senate is with federal judges and Supreme Court justices. We would welcome that. With the single exception of Jenny Rivera in 2013, the Senate has never put tough questions to any Court of Appeals nominee since the state Constitution was amended to switch those judges from being elected to appointed in 1979.

Ask away and feel free to vote no, but obey the law.