ALBANY – Jenny Rivera was confirmed Monday by the full State Senate as a judge on the state’s highest court, a week after Senate Republicans raised concerns about her lack of judicial experience.
Rivera, a law professor at the City University of New York and a former senior civil rights lawyer in the Attorney General’s Office when now-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was the state’s chief lawyer, had her nomination approved by voice vote – meaning there is no record of who voted for or against her.
Rivera, 52, a Bronx resident who grew up in a public housing project on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, succeeds Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick on the Court of Appeals, one of the most influential state courts in the nation.
In a rare moment for a gubernatorial nominee to the high court, Rivera came under sharp questioning for nearly five hours by Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. Eight of the committee’s Republicans ended up voting against her last week, with one – Sen. John J. Bonacic, of Mount Hope, the committee chairman – suggesting that Cuomo engaged in “social engineering” of the court by picking a Hispanic lawyer with less experience than other Hispanics who might have been considered.
With Rivera on the court, “justice will be served,” Senate co-leader Jeffrey D. Klein, D-Bronx, told his colleagues on the Senate floor. She will serve for at least 14 years.
But Bonacic said that while he has voted for all eight members of the Court of Appeals who have come before the Senate since he was elected to the chamber in 1998, he could not vote for Rivera on Monday.
“I have concerns … that she will be prone to judicial activism,” Bonacic said.
He said Cuomo asked lawmakers “to make a leap” that someone with no judicial experience and who has spent most of her life teaching law should go on the state’s top court. He noted that Cuomo passed over three judges in the state’s Appellate Division – including a Hispanic – to pick Rivera from the names on a judicial screening list for the opening on the court.
Supporters cited a list of names of lawyers named to the state’s highest court or the U.S. Supreme Court without judicial experience.
Cuomo defended his selection to the court, saying her varied background in public service and civil rights will produce a “richer discussion” on the high court. “What she brings to that court, frankly, no one there has,” Cuomo said Monday. He added, “Judge Rivera spent a life working on real-life problems and situations that the people of this state face.”
In a brief appearance before reporters, Rivera sought to allay concerns by some GOP senators that her legal writings suggest she will be an activist judge more intent on writing laws than interpreting them. “I will take every case based on the rule of law,” she said.