How a Democratic Supermajority Confirmed a Tough-On-Crime Prosecutor to New York’s Top Court

A progressive campaign to block the confirmation of Governor Cuomo’s nominee to the New York Court of Appeals failed by just a few votes

Sam Mellins   ·   June 15, 2021
Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas was confirmed to the New York Court of Appeals last week | Nassau County District Attorney

The New York State Senate, armed with a brand-new Democratic supermajority, won major victories in this year’s state budget and has become regarded as the most progressive player in Albany politics.

Yet last week, despite fierce opposition from criminal justice reform advocates and progressive senators, the chamber confirmed a tough-on-crime prosecutor to the state’s highest court—leaving progressives inside and outside the legislature mulling over their failure to block the confirmation.

Defense attorneys and reform advocates lobbied intensely against confirming Nassau County DA Madeline Singas to a 14-year term on the Court of Appeals, arguing that her prominent opposition to recent criminal justice reforms and punitive approach to crime as DA would guarantee years of conservative rulings on criminal justice from the seven-member court.

But Singas’ opponents only managed to muster ten Democratic votes against her confirmation, while thirty-two Democrats voted in favor.

Opponents say they were closer to blocking the confirmation than those figures suggest. Had two fewer Democrats voted in favor, supporters would have been forced to rely on Republican votes to push the confirmation through—which might have led Democratic leadership to delay the vote or caused the nomination to be withdrawn.

“It’s not universal, but no majority leader wants to depend on the minority for the passage or movement of anything,” said Michael Kink, a longtime progressive lobbyist in Albany.

A spokesperson for the Nassau County DA’s office declined to comment for this story, and a Senate Democratic spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

A silver lining for progressive legal advocates was that the campaign raised awareness around the importance of judicial nominations and taught advocates lessons on navigating Albany politics, organizers involved with the effort said.

Progressives are already gearing up for another confirmation battle: Court of Appeals Judge Eugene Fahey will retire at the end of 2021, and his replacement will be nominated shortly thereafter.

“We now have half a year until another vacancy, and a whole lot of people are both fired up and aware of this issue. We’re expecting something very different with the next seat,” said Peter Martin, a lawyer and an organizer with the Democratic Socialists of America who lobbied senators to oppose Singas’ confirmation. 

“It’s clear that there is a strong desire to have a public defender or civil rights lawyer [on the Court],” said another organizer involved with the effort, who requested anonymity due to professional involvement with the Court of Appeals. “If we don’t see a nominee like that, there's going to be another fight—and we’ll be better prepared.”

A Last-Minute Campaign

Historically, filling Court of Appeals vacancies has not been a high-profile affair. Since 1977, when the Governor-nominates-Senate-confirms system was instituted, the Senate has never rejected a nominee.

But the Senate’s recent shift leftward raised advocates’ hopes that things could be different this time around.

2021 also offered an unusual number of vacancies on the Court: between November 2020 and March 2021, three judges—Leslie Stein, Eugene Fahey, and Paul Feinman—retired or announced their retirements.

This set of circumstances offered a unique opportunity for progressives to attempt to push the court left.

In March, progressive legal advocates began discussing the possibility of mounting a lobbying effort surrounding the two vacancies that would be filled in June. But beyond a vague agreement to push for a progressive nominee, nothing was done at the time.

“Nothing happened between March and ten days ago, which is part of the reason that the effort wasn’t bigger,” an advocate involved with the push, who asked not to be named, told New York Focus the day after Singas was confirmed. “People took note, said ‘let’s get ready’—and then no one followed up on it.”

In early April, the New York Commission on Judicial Nomination published a shortlist of potential nominees, including Singas, to fill the vacancy left by Stein’s retirement. As a press release accompanying the shortlist noted, state law mandated that the governor select one nominee from the list within a month, by May 8.

Governor Cuomo ignored the deadline, nominating Singas to fill Stein’s seat only on May 25, along with New York administrative Judge Anthony Cannataro to fill Feinman’s seat. By that time, less than three weeks remained in New York’s legislative session, leaving relatively little time for Singas’ nomination to be considered. 

“That was entirely Cuomo’s objective—to make these nominations at the very end of the legislative session, when the legislature was considering and negotiating literally hundreds of other actions,” Martin told New York Focus.

A spokesperson for Governor Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Advocates were alarmed by Cuomo’s nomination of Singas, whom they viewed as the most right-wing of the shortlisted nominees. (Cannataro, a civil court judge, had no record on criminal justice issues, and his nomination did not provoke public opposition.) Organizers decided to launch a campaign to stop Singas from being confirmed. 

But once organizing began in earnest, the group, which was mostly composed of progressive New York City legal professionals, was hampered by their relative inexperience in Albany politics.

“The group that came together to do this was not seasoned advocates or lobbyists or Albany organizers,” the advocate said. “We didn’t know who to call….We were starting from deep sincerity and optimism and not a whole lot of connections.”

Most of the first week after the May 25 nomination was spent gathering names and contact information of opponents of Singas’ confirmation, creating a website, and drafting op-eds and an open letter.

On Thursday, June 3, Senator Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn) announced she would vote against Singas. Senators Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx) and Jabari Brisport (D-Brooklyn) followed suit the next day.

Only towards the end of the first week of June, when it had become clear that the vote would be early the next week, did advocates begin strategically lobbying multiple senators and organizing the public to contact their senators to ask them to oppose Singas’ confirmation.

Advocates zeroed in on Senator Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan progressive; as chair of the judiciary committee, he would lead the hearing that would vote whether or not to recommend Singas to the full Senate for confirmation.

On Monday, June 7, the day before the vote, several organizers including Alice Fontier, president of the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and NYU Law professor Noah Rosenblum, met with Hoylman’s chief of staff.

According to his staff, he was still considering his position,” Fontier said. “They were very receptive,” she added, noting that staff asked for more information about potential prosecutorial misconduct issues during Singas’ tenure at the Queens DA office in the 1990s.

(In 1999, Singas, then a prosecutor at the Queens District Attorney’s office, redacted from a police report information that could have helped to prove the innocence of three men then on trial for a double murder. The men were wrongfully convicted and spent twenty-four years in jail before being released in 2021.) 

But Hoylman’s staff declined to make any commitments on his behalf. “Leaving that meeting, I didn’t know what he was going to do,” Fontier said.

The Vote

The day of the vote, before the Senate convened, five Democratic senators released a statement announcing their opposition to Singas’ nomination: Salazar, Brisport, Rivera, Robert Jackson (D-Manhattan) and judiciary committee member Alessandra Biaggi (D-Bronx). Senator James Sanders (D-Queens) had also announced his opposition the night before.

“We believe District Attorney Singas’ past support for maintaining draconian criminal justice policies renders her unfit to serve in our highest court. We plan to vote against her nomination, and we urge our colleagues to do the same,” the statement read.

In the early afternoon, the Senate judiciary committee, chaired by Hoylman, interviewed Singas.

Watching the livestream, the activists organizing to stop Singas’ confirmation were not impressed. Hoylman asked Singas several questions, but none dealt with the alleged prosecutorial misconduct in Queens, and few touched on her tough-on-crime tenure as Nassau County DA.

“The hearing was completely shameful. Hoylman specifically teed up the hearing to be soft on Singas and to avoid some of the most important substance of her record,” Martin said.

Holyman’s office declined to comment for this story. 

Singas faced several minutes of adversarial questioning from Biaggi, who repeatedly asked Singas whether her redacting potentially exculpatory evidence during the 1999 murder trial had been knowing or inadvertant. Singas refused to answer. 

At no point did Singas deny the possibility that she had knowingly withheld evidence that could have been used to prove the innocence of the three defendants.

Rosenblum said that Hoylman should have demanded further vetting of Singas’ record before the committee voted on her nomination. “The information he was presented with made it clear that more investigation was necessary,” he said.

But Kink voiced doubts about whether Hoylman could have obstructed Singas’ confirmation. “Leadership has incredible amounts of leeway, and if the conference is substantially supportive, it’s not likely that a minoritarian perspective can actually set up a roadblock” to a nominee’s confirmation, he said.

After around an hour of questioning, the committee voted to recommend Singas’ confirmation to the full Senate. Only Biaggi voted against, with Hoylman and Senator Jamaal Bailey (D-Bronx) voting “no recommendation.”

When the nomination was taken up by the full chamber later in the afternoon, Singas and the other judicial nominees were confirmed by a vote of 38-25 after less than an hour of debate. The vote was conducted as a “party line” vote—a special provision instituted during the pandemic where all members of the Democratic majority are assumed to be “yes” votes unless they proactively register their opposition with Senate staff. 

The vote was conducted so quickly that several senators were not even aware that it was happening, Biaggi said, since pandemic-era capacity restrictions meant that few senators were on the chamber floor when it was called up. One organizer, who requested anonymity to discuss internal legislative processes, said that several senators intended to vote ‘no’ but missed the vote and were counted as voting ‘yes’ in absentia.

“This is too important to speed through. We can’t vote that way again,” Biaggi said. “Anybody who missed the vote, or didn’t know we were voting—that is a frightening thought.”

The ten Democratic no votes included Hoylman, Rachel May (D-Syracuse), Jessica Ramos (D-Queens), and Luis Sepúlveda (D-Bronx). None of those four had publicly stated opposition to Singas before the vote, despite requests from advocates directed at Hoylman, May, and Ramos, Fontier said.

Ramos had said privately on Tuesday morning that she was planning to vote no, a Queens organizer involved with the campaign against Singas told New York Focus, but was not publicizing her intention due to fear of blowback from conservative Greek constituents and unions with bases in her district. (Singas is first-generation Greek-American.) Ramos said that she had been getting calls from both constituencies in support of Singas’ confirmation, the organizer added.

“It was disappointing to see Senator Hoylman and Senator Ramos vote no in the end, even though people were very explicit with them earlier in saying, ‘if you’re going to oppose this nominee, and you really want to keep them from being confirmed, you need to come out early,’” Rosenblum said. 

“If the seven other senators who voted against had been willing to come out publicly against Singas with the same kind of courage that Salazar, Brisport, and Rivera showed right at the beginning, we might have been able to prevent this nomination,” he continued. 

May’s and Ramos’ offices did not respond to requests for comment.

The ultimate irony in Singas’ confirmation, Fontier said, is that the same Democratic majority that voted to confirm Singas may have placed their signature criminal justice reforms from the 2019 legislative session on the chopping block by confirming a judge who could shrink their effect.

“The Senators who fought so hard for bail and discovery [reforms] and know that these things are going to come up [before the Court of Appeals]—the idea that they can vote yes for her is strange,” Fontier said.

“They’re putting their own legislation in danger.”

Sam Mellins is senior reporter at New York Focus, which he has been a part of since launch day. His reporting has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Intercept, THE CITY, and The Nation. 
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