Albany Law School dean on list of potential chief judge nominees

ALBANY — The dean of Albany Law School is among seven nominees under consideration by Gov. Kathy Hochul to be New York’s next chief judge.

New York’s Commission on Judicial Nomination, a screening panel, released a report Wednesday which named the law school’s president and dean, Alicia Ouellette, as well as four existing judges, an academic and an attorney from the legal advocacy community as candidates to succeed former Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, who resigned at the end of August after six-and-a-half years.

The chief judge not only leads the seven-member Court of Appeals, the state’s top court, but establishes policy and tone for the state’s vast court system.

In addition to Ouellette, the nominees are acting Chief Judge Anthony Cannataro; Abbe R. Gluck, a professor and director of the Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy at Yale Law School who also teaches internal medicine at Yale Medical School; Hector D. LaSalle, presiding justice of the Brooklyn-based Appellate Division of state Supreme Court’s Second Department; Jeffrey K. Oing, associate justice with the Manhattan-based Appellate Division of state Supreme Court’s First Department; Edwina G. Richardson-Mendelson, deputy chief administrative judge for justice initiatives as well as a judge of the Court of Claims and acting state Supreme Court justice; and Corey L. Stoughton, attorney-in-charge of special litigation and law reform at The Legal Aid Society.

Hochul is required by state law to make her appointment from among the list no sooner than Dec. 8 and no later than Dec. 23. The state Senate will have 30 days after she makes her choice to confirm or reject the nominee.

In September, the Times Union reported that 20 state senators, including Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, sent a letter on Aug. 30 to the commission asking it consider nominees far different from DiFiore, who had been the district attorney of Westchester County. The letter said past lists from the judicial screening panel had  “regrettably fallen far short” of qualified candidates of a diverse background in race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and community service, nature of their legal practice and geography.

The court has in recent years heard considerably fewer cases – and has been sharply divided.

When DiFiore announced her retirement, the Times Union reported that in more than 60 decisions by the Court of Appeals, Cannataro sided in majority opinions with DiFiore and Associate Judges Madeline Singas and Michael Garcia. None of the four judges dissented in a single case. Three of the four – DiFiore, Singas and Garcia – were former prosecutors. Cannataro had been the administrative judge for New York City civil courts.

They were seen as the more conservative bloc of the court at odds with more liberal Associate Judges Jenny Rivera and Rowan Wilson, who dissented together on 14 occasions and another five times with  Associate Judge Shirley Troutman, who is considered the closest person to a swing vote.

If Cannataro were to chosen and confirmed, he would become the state’s first openly gay chief judge. Richardson-Mendelson, a judge since 2003 in New York City, would be the state’s first Black chief judge and first Black woman to hold the position, LaSalle, a former prosecutor in Suffolk County where he headed an anti-gang bureau, would be the state’s first Latino chief judge. Oing, a judge in New York City since 2004, would be the state’s first Asian-American chief judge.

Gluck’s resume includes clerking for the late Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2003 and 2004, serving in the administrations of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine and for the Biden administration, where he was the lead lawyer for the White House COVID-19 Response.

Stoughton, who spent a decade as senior supervising attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union, would likely be well-received by legal advocates who have called for more inclusion of judges with backgrounds of defense and advocacy. Ouellette, a national expert on bioethics has served atop Albany Law School since October 2014.  In May, the Longmeadow, Mass. native said she would step down from her post in June 2023 with plans to return as a full-time law professor after a sabbatical.

The commission said it received 41 applications for the top job. The applicant pool was comprised of 22 women, and 17 from what the commission called “diverse backgrounds.” The panel interviewed 17 candidates (10 women, seven ethnic minorities).

“The commission interviewed candidates from around the state, of varying personal and professional backgrounds, and drawing from the bench, the practicing bar and academia,” it said in its release.

Speaking to the Times Union’s editorial board last month, Hochul said the selection of the chief judge was “one of the most important decisions I’m going to make.”

“I’m going to elevate the person who is the most outstanding jurist in that mix,” she said. “I want someone who people would not question their ability to become a U.S. Supreme Court justice. That’s our legacy in New York — you think of Learned Hand and Benjamin Cardozo — we used to send people to Supreme Court, the highest-caliber judges started in our Court of Appeals. I want to return to that level of excellence.”