News Column

Republicans Rebuke Jenny Rivera as Nominee for NY High Court Post

Feb 5, 2013

Tom Precious

Jenny Rivera

Senate Republicans on the Judiciary Committee voted against Gov. Andrew Cuomo's choice of a Hispanic woman to the state's highest court, a rare rebuke of a governor's nominee.

The nomination of Jenny Rivera, a law professor, will still go to the Senate floor for a full vote even though she did not have the affirmative support from a majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee's members.

The governor's choice for a post on the state's highest court faced an unusually tense five-hour nomination hearing Monday before the Senate Judiciary Committee. In a break with tradition, the committee postponed a final vote until this morning whether to send her nomination to the full Senate floor for confirmation.

In this morning's hearing, Republicans as a group, including Erie County state Sen. Mike Ranzenhofer, voted mostly no or "without recommendation" to send Rivera's nomination to the floor.

In the end, she was backed by 11 Senate Democrats; three Republicans who voted "without recommendation'' legally end up counting as votes that still send her nomination to the floor. Eight Senate Republicans voted no and one member was absent from the session.

Republican critics said Rivera, a law school professor at City University of New York who served as a civil rights division head under Cuomo when he was the state attorney general, does not have the wide range of legal experience needed to join the Court of Appeals.

Sen. John DeFrancisco, a Syracuse Republican, said he understands Cuomo wants to have an Hispanic judge on the court, and said he would welcome the opportunity to vote for a "qualified'' Hispanic nominee.

"We have to have the most qualified person we can get for this position ... This candidate is not that candidate,'' DeFrancisco said.

That a Cuomo nominee was having even the most modest of push back by the Senate Republicans, who have been some of the most loyal group of lawmakers during Cuomo's first two years in office, was noteworthy on its own. For the governor, who works especially hard to get unanimous support on many of his policies and nominations, the past two days have shown a less-than-comfortable position for him in the Senate.

Is this a sign of Senate Republicans standing up to Cuomo? Shoitly before the Rivera vote, Senate Republicans said they were holding a news conference today to criticize Cuomo's plan to continue a state surcharge on utility companies -- a tax that gets passed onto consumers.

There has been some dissent within the Senate Republican conference -- which shares the control of the Senate with a five-member group of breakaway Democrats -- since the recent approval of Cuomo's gun control plan. More conservative GOP senators have privately said the Senate has been leaning too far to the left in going along with Cuomo over the past two years.

Gubernatorial nominees to agencies, boards and courts rarely get the kind of public push back Rivera saw from Senate Republicans the past two days. The Senate is the body charged with confirming gubernatorial nominees, and the legislative chamber typically defers to governors in their selection of everything from state agency heads to judges; the situation was serious enough that senior Cuomo aides, including his counsel Mylan Denerstein, attended the committee session today.]

Two members of the breakaway group of Democrats -- senators Diane Savino of Staten Island and Malcolm Smith of Queens -- joined with the main group of Democrats to endorse Rivera's spot on the court. Democrats said she is qualified to serve, and they pointed to judges on the highest court over the years who had no judicial backgrounds before joining the Court of Appeals.

Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson, a Westchester County Democrat, said Republicans "attacked her'' during Monday's hearing and "interrogated'' her background and education. "How dare we ... We should be ashamed,'' she told Republicans.

"If this body rejects Professor Jenny Rivera for this position, I believe it to be an offense to the struggle of women, for women seeking qualified employment opportunities. It's an insult to the diversity and aspirations of Hispanic Americans everywhere," she said, adding a rejection of her nomination would be "a slap in the face of the governor.''

But Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman John Bonacic, a Mid-Hudson Valley Republican, said the seven-member high court makes "decisions that will affect New Yorkers for generations to come.''

He said he is concerned about what he called the "social engineering'' of the court's selections along racial and gender lines. "I don't subscribe to that,'' he said, noting the court's importance calls for the most qualified judges.

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