Governor Andrew Cuomo has nominated an out gay man to fill a vacancy on the Court of Appeals, New York State’s highest bench.
“It’s just an absolutely terrific day for the LGBT legal community in New York,” said Matthew Skinner, executive director of the LGBT Bar Association of Greater New York (LeGaL). “It’s a day that has been long in coming… This doesn’t guarantee any outcomes, but we’re relieved to finally have a seat at the table.”
Paul Feinman, currently an appellate judge in Manhattan, was first elected to Civil Court in 1996 and reelected in 2006. He has presided over criminal and civil cases and even briefly oversaw arbitration efforts on a small claims case in which LGNY, Gay City News’ predecessor publication, was a party. The newspaper won that case in a trial presided over by a different judge.
In 2007, he was elected to a Supreme Court judgeship and then appointed to the state’s Appellate Division by Cuomo in 2012. In New York, the Supreme Court is the lowest level of trial courts. Feinman was the first out gay man to join the Appellate Division, the intermediate court below the Court of Appeals.
Previously, Feinman was a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society and a court attorney for a State Supreme Court judge.
The Court of Appeals is comprised of seven judges who serve for 14-year terms. A seat opened up with the sudden death of Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam in April. A quiet though “intense” lobbying campaign was launched to have Cuomo appoint an openly LGBTQ judge, Skinner said.
“We were trying to get as many LGBT organizations in the city and individuals to speak out and say this was something that was really important,” Skinner said.
With the legislative session expected to end on June 21, the prospects for a quick hearing and vote in the State Senate, which must approve the nomination, are dim. A spokesperson for Senator John Bonacic, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, told the New York Law Journal, “As of right now there are no plans to have a Judiciary Committee Meeting before end of session.”
Bonacic, a Republican, represents Sullivan County and portions of three other upstate counties in the State Senate.
The need for an openly LGBT judge on the state’s highest court was demonstrated in 2006 when the Court of Appeals denied gay and lesbian couples the right to marry in a 4 to 2 decision, saying it was up to the State Legislature to grant that right. The seventh judge recused himself. The decision, which was written by Judge Robert Smith who is no longer on the court, was seen as particularly tough.
“It was such a gut punch to the community,” Skinner said. “I think today we finally removed the stain of that decision… It’s hard to believe the decision would have been written in the vicious way that it was if the judges on the court had had to look another [LGBTQ] judge in the eye every day.”
In a written statement, Cuomo said, “Justice Feinman will be an exceptional addition to New York’s highest court. He is a talented jurist who has dedicated his career to public service and standing up for a fairer and more just New York. While we continue to mourn the untimely passing of Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam, Justice Feinman will help ensure that the Court of Appeals upholds the highest principles of law and fairness that embody the very best of New York.”
Feinman, who through his law clerk declined to comment for this article, received a B.A. from Columbia University in 1981 and a J.D. degree from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1985.