Hochul Nominates Former Prosecutor to New York’s Top Court

Buffalo Appellate Judge Shirley Troutman is widely seen as well qualified, but some worry that she will accentuate the Court of Appeals’ prosecutorial leanings

Sam Mellins   ·   November 24, 2021
The Court of Appeals and then-Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2016 | Governor's Press Office

On Wednesday, Governor Kathy Hochul announced the nomination of Shirley Troutman, a Buffalo appellate judge, to an upcoming opening on the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. The nomination is subject to a vote by the State Senate, where it is likely to be approved.

Troutman is generally seen as well qualified for the position, and her nomination was greeted with praise from numerous legislators, as well as New York NAACP president Hazel Dukes and Monroe County Public Defender Timothy Donaher. If confirmed, she would be the second Black woman to ever serve on the court.

“I look forward to her tenure at the Court of Appeals and believe she will be a strong advocate for addressing the inequities in our criminal and family court systems,” Donaher said.

Troutman has served in New York’s judiciary since 1994, when she joined the Buffalo City Court. In 2016, she was appointed by then-Governor Andrew Cuomo to the state appellate court covering Western New York.

Before she became a judge, Troutman spent nearly a decade working as a prosecutor for the Erie County District Attorney, the New York Attorney General, and the United States Department of Justice.

If confirmed, she would become the fourth former prosecutor on the seven-member Court of Appeals. Current Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and Judges Madeline Singas and Michael Garcia all worked as prosecutors before joining the Court of Appeals.

Justice Shirley Troutman | New York Unified Court System

State Senator Jabari Brisport (D-Brooklyn) told New York Focus that he will vote against Troutman’s confirmation.

“We already have enough prosecutors on the court,” he said. “There are zero judges with a defense background on the court, and I can’t vote to keep it at zero.”

UnCuomo The Court, a group recently formed with the goal of increasing the number of public interest lawyers appointed to judgeships, released a statement criticizing Troutman’s nomination.

“We worry that this unbalanced court will, like its predecessor, favor prosecutorial and corporate power and contribute to New York’s mass incarceration crisis,” the statement read.

An Unsuccessful Letter

Troutman’s nomination comes after twelve Democratic state Senators, led by Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris (D-Queens) and Judiciary Committee Chair Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan), sent a letter to Hochul on November 13 requesting that she nominate a public defender to fill the opening.

That unusual step, first reported by New York Focus, was motivated by the concern that lawyers with backgrounds in prosecution or corporate law were overrepresented on the Court of Appeals. The letter requested the nomination of Buffalo-based federal public defender Timothy Murphy or New York City-based Legal Aid attorney Corey Stoughton, both of whom were on a seven-member shortlist for the nomination.

Gianaris told New York Focus at the time that whether Hochul nominated Murphy or Stoughton would be “a very good indication of her commitment to governing in a way that represents those who have traditionally been left behind and disempowered.”

Gianaris did not respond to a request for comment on Troutman’s nomination.

Hoylman said that despite the fact that Troutman was not one of his requested candidates, he is open to voting for her, pending a closer examination of her record.

On the subject of Troutman potentially being the fourth prosecutor on the seven-member court, he said that he “sought and will continue to seek change in that mindset.”

“The Governor chose differently, but that is something we’ll discuss at the hearing,” he said, noting that the letter did not include a pledge to vote against candidates other than Murphy or Stoughton.

None of the letter’s other signatories responded to requests for comment on Troutman’s nomination.

Asked for comment, a spokesperson for Governor Hochul referred New York Focus to the press release announcing the appointment and noted the support for Troutman from New York electeds and Black clergy members.

Nomination Process Reforms

Hoylman suggested that Troutman’s nomination could cause a reconsideration of the process by which nominations to the Court of Appeals occur.

Shortlists for the Court of Appeals are selected by the twelve-member Commission on Judicial Nominations​​. Four of the Commission’s members are appointed by the governor, four by legislative leadership of both parties, and four by the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals.

The Governor’s and Chief Judge’s appointees together “have a controlling number of votes on naming nominees for the Court of Appeals,” Hoylman noted.

“[The legislature’s] role in nominating is really minimized by the current structure,” he said. “Boss Tweed once said, ‘I don’t care who does the electing as long as I do the nominating.’”

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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