Governor Andrew Cuomo Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Photo: Shutterstock.

The Judicial Friends Association, an organization established in 1976 by several African-American judges, writes to express our deep disappointment in the failure of Governor Andrew Cuomo to fill the final two openings for presiding justice of the Appellate Division, Second Department, and the Appellate Division, Third Judicial Department, with a qualified African-American.

The four appellate divisions stand as the final vanguard for the vast majority of cases in New York, as only a minuscule percentage of cases are heard by the New York State Court of Appeals. The Administrative Board of the Courts, which sets statewide policy for New York, is composed of the four presiding justices and Chief Judge Janet DiFiore.  Since the establishment of the Appellate Divisions in 1896, the history of these courts, while illustrious in many respects, is sorely lacking in the area of diversity. For instance, the Second Judicial Department represents at least fifty-one percent of New York State’s residents, including the most populous county of Kings. Yet, there has never been an African-American presiding justice in its one hundred and twenty-one-year history. Indeed, it took eighty-four years before the first African American, Honorable William C. Thompson, was appointed to the court in 1980. As to the Third Judicial Department, the first and only African American appointed in its then one-hundred-and-twenty-year history was the governor’s appointment in 2016. Needless to say, it has never had an African American presiding justice.

In his 2018 State of the State address, Governor Cuomo emphasized that “we are facing a three front war. First, we have the old challenges of discrimination and sexism that have plagued society for years but have recently been exposed for their prevalence and virulence… Enlighted government must seize the moment to attack these social diseases that are long institutionalized and culturalized and end them once and for all.” He added further that “[w]e must also assure the people of our state that our democratic foundation—which is our justice system—is in fact, just… We have made many reforms over the past few years, but we have more to do.  Let’s be painfully honest.  The truth is that our Lady Justice is still not color blind and her scales are still not balanced.” Manifest to the concept of justice and excellence in the court system is the need for diversity.

In this latest round of appointments, there were three highly qualified African American candidates, all with experience at the Appellate Division, who made it out of committee for consideration by the governor. Specifically, there were two candidates for the Second Department and one for the Third Department.

By virtue of his two appointments, the governor has cemented the complete exclusion of any African American from having a seat at that statewide policy-making table. To be sure, our organization recognizes and applauds the appointment of the first member of the LGBTQ community, Justice Elizabeth A. Garry, as a presiding justice. We nonetheless are dismayed that Governor Cuomo did not see fit to likewise recognize the importance of racial diversity in this important court, most particularly in the Second Department. This is juxtaposed against the recent positive steps taken by the chief judge to begin to address the lack of diversity in the ranks of administrative judges by the appointment of two highly-qualified African American judges.

Our goal remains, as it was for the founders of this organization, to lay the foundation to ensure that the next generation of judges can be assured of a seat at the table, so that the people of the state of New York are provided with equal access and justice under the law.

Ruth Shillingford
The author sits in Supreme Court, Criminal Term, Kings County,
and is president of The Judicial Friends Association.