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Top Dem-Appointed New York Judge Resigns Amid Alleged Ethics Scandal

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OPINION: This article may contain commentary which reflects the author's opinion.


The top judge in New York will be stepping down from the bench, according to a Tuesday report.

The Wall Street Journal reported that New York State Court of Appeals Judge Janet DiFiore, 66, noted in a letter on Monday that she was resigning amid an allegation that she improperly tried to influence a disciplinary hearing, people familiar with the matter said.

DiFiore’s resignation comes as the state’s judicial commission was looking at a complaint about the matter.

In her letter, the judge said she would step down on Aug. 31.

Besides leading the state’s highest court since 2016, DiFiore was also responsible for managing one of the largest state court systems in the nation.

The WSJ added:

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The state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct had been investigating Judge DiFiore for several months in connection with a complaint filed last year by Dennis Quirk, head of the court officers union, according to the knowledgeable people. The commission voted in June to serve Judge DiFiore with a formal written complaint alleging that she improperly used her official position to influence a disciplinary hearing involving Mr. Quirk, those people said.

The formal complaint could have led to a hearing before the commission, which has the power to privately caution judges or issue public admonitions or censures. The commission can also remove judges from office. However, it has no jurisdiction over jurists once they leave office, meaning her resignation effectively ends the investigation.

The paper said that Quirk was subjected to a disciplinary hearing after he was accused by court officials of threatening retaliation against DiFiore in 2020.

Quirk reportedly emailed DiFiore and threatened to share information regarding her personal life following a news report that said she ordered a probe into the union leader’s alleged racism, a copy of the email filed in a related court case indicates, the WSJ reported.

After the disciplinary hearing, Quirk was suspended from his position as a court officer temporarily; in past interviews, however, Quirk has denied that he has engaged in any racist behavior.

In a letter dated Aug. 24, 2021, to Phyllis Flug, who presided over Quirk’s hearing, DiFiore wrote that he had a “childish temper tantrum” and that “absent significant sanction, he will be emboldened to engage in similar misconduct in the future,” according to a copy reviewed by the WSJ.

“I implore you to use your authority wisely to uphold the values of our entire court system,” DiFiore also wrote in the letter, which was printed on official letterhead.

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Under New York rules of judicial conduct, judges are not permitted to lend the prestige of their offices in order to advance their own interests. Also, they can’t voluntarily testify as character witnesses.

Deborah Scalise, who represented DiFiore in the matter, said: “Complaints such as Mr. Quirk’s are filed all the time. That is part of being a public official in this day and age.”

She added that the judge had been planning her departure for months and that it was “completely unrelated to Mr. Quirk’s complaint or any other external factors.”

Law360 previously reported that DiFiore was under investigation by the Commission on Judicial Conduct.

In her public resignation letter on Monday, DiFiore noted that she was proud of her ability to eliminate a backlog of cases while also promoting racial equity and being able to lead the state court system through the pandemic.

“It is time for me to move on to the next chapter of my professional life,” she said.

DiFiore was the district attorney in Westchester County when she was nominated to the Court of Appeals by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

DiFiore also recently wrote an opinion that invalidated new maps for the House of Representatives that were drawn by Democrats in the state legislature, which dealt a blow to the party’s bid to maintain control over Congress amid record-high inflation, gas prices, food costs, and other issues weighing the country down.

“Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul will name Judge DiFiore’s successor from a list of names that will be provided by a screening commission,” the WSJ reported.

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