A nomination by Governor Andrew Cuomo to fill one of two vacancies on New York’s highest court has provoked fierce opposition from criminal justice reform advocates and progressive lawmakers, who are mobilizing an effort to block the nomination when it is brought to a vote in the state Senate as early as next week.
Opponents say that Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas, the nominee, has a tough-on-crime record which would translate to rulings unfriendly to the rights of criminal defendants.
“I am not able to support a nominee whose record reflects the same old ways of doing things in the criminal legal system,” Senator Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn) told New York Focus.
Judges on the seven-member Court of Appeals are appointed to fourteen-year terms and serve as the supreme judicial authorities of New York State, with final say on the interpretation of state laws and the state constitution.
Criminal defense attorneys have roundly criticized Singas’ nomination—and several told New York Focus that it’s part of a broader trend in Governor Cuomo’s nominations to the court.
“The Court of Appeals under Cuomo’s appointments has been moving further and further to the right, which is troubling given that the voting patterns of the state of New York demonstrate that the people of New York don’t view the world that way,” said Alice Fontier, president of the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Spokespersons for DA Singas and Governor Cuomo declined to comment for this story.
“A year after George Floyd”
Three state senators—Salazar, Jabari Brisport (D-Brooklyn) and Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx)—told New York Focus that they plan to oppose Singas’ nomination. Brisport said that “a lot of other progressive legislators” would vote against it as well.
Public defenders and advocates are organizing to whip more votes against Singas’ confirmation. Their efforts have included creating a website called “Stop Singas,” urging New Yorkers to contact their state senators in opposition to the nomination.
Brisport said that Singas’ opposition to 2019’s bail reform was “a non-starter for me.”
“I really don’t want to go backwards on that topic,” he said.
Salazar said that the nomination was out of step with the times. “A year after George Floyd was murdered by the police, sparking an unprecedented national and state-wide reckoning with the ways in which the criminal legal system has too often served to sustain systemic racism, it is disappointing that the Governor would nominate D.A. Singas, whose entire career has been as prosecutor,” she said.
“It felt like we were in 1994”
Several criminal defense attorneys said Singas has taken an aggressively tough-on-crime approach as Nassau County DA over the past five years.
“She has a long history of rigid and unreasonable policies on bail, discovery, access to diversion programs, and sentencing. As DA, her policies have targeted the most vulnerable residents of Nassau County,” said Bret Taylor, financial secretary-treasurer of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, a union representing Nassau County’s public defenders.
“Her office was not just a contributor but an avid supporter of mass incarceration,” David Hanyok, a public defender who worked at the Legal Aid Society of Nassau County from 2015 to 2018, told New York Focus. “It was kind of surreal at times. The Black Lives Matter movement is happening…and it felt like we were in 1994 at the height of the war on drugs out in Nassau.”
Singas’ office “would ask for bail on just about everything, even the most minor offense,” Hanyok said, leading to people being incarcerated pretrial on trivial charges such as driving with a suspended license. “In most other places in the state, you at most come out with a traffic infraction conviction and maybe pay a little fine” when facing similar charges, Hanyok said.
“Scrutiny of any kind of witness’ testimony, especially police officer testimony, was not encouraged,” Kristin McAlpin, a public defender who worked at the Legal Aid Society of Nassau County from 2017 to 2020, told New York Focus. “There were many instances in which if anyone in that office had really critically examined an officer’s testimony it would have become clear that it was not believable, or contradicted by some other facts.”
Singas and her staff have been high-profile opponents of two major criminal justice reforms in New York in recent years: 2019’s historic bail and discovery reforms. The laws aimed to limit the number of people held in jail while awaiting trial and provide defense lawyers with more time to review potentially exculpatory evidence in advance of trials, respectively.
In October 2019, several months after the passage of the bail reform law, which significantly reduced the incarcerated population of New York State, Singas said that she was “one of the most vocal opponents” of many elements of the bill.
Also in 2019, Singas’ general counsel Jed Painter gave a presentation, published as a podcast, in which he “gave tips to… prosecutors on how to jail people that otherwise would be released under the new [bail reform] law,” City & State reported at the time.
“That’s just the culture of the office: someone that high up going out there and finding legal loopholes,” said Scott Hechinger, a former senior public defender and current director of Zealous, an organization that trains public defenders in media advocacy.
Singas also spoke out against 2019’s discovery reforms, before which New York was one of just 10 states that allowed prosecutors to withhold evidence until the eve of a trial. When Wilmer Rodriguez, a witness in an active case, was violently killed in early 2020, Singas issued a statement that “suggested…that being forced to identify him well before trial had hampered the authorities’ ability to protect him, and may have cost him his life,” the New York Times reported at the time.
The Nassau County police commissioner echoed Singas’ claim, before retracting that claim just days later and admitting that there was “no direct link between the death of Wilmer Maldonado Rodriguez and criminal justice reform.”
Singas “used her bully pulpit to mislead and fearmonger about those reforms,” Hechinger said. “They were forced to retract, but the damage was already done. The story was all over Fox News” and was shared by several New York Republican electeds, Hechinger added.
In 2015, Singas also drafted legislation, which did not become law, to allow drug dealers to be prosecuted for murder if their customers fatally overdosed. “In the midst of the opioid crisis, her solution is ‘let’s prosecute drug dealers for murder,’” Fontier said.
“Where others were saying ‘What are the causes, and how do we address these addictions,’ her vision was ‘Put the people into jail,’” she added.
Other attorneys have defended Singas’ record. Brendan Brosh, a spokesperson for DA Singas, directed New York Focus to comments made earlier this week by Oscar Michelen, a Mineola civil and criminal defense lawyer. “I can say Maddie has been the most progressive prosecutor Nassau County has ever had,” Michelen told Newsday earlier this week.
“Show me where she’s been regressive,” Michelen added. “I don’t see her calling for draconian sentences. I don’t see her calling for over-policing neighborhoods. I don’t see her talking down to groups.”
Some observers have noted that Singas’ nomination may be related to Cuomo’s fears of impeachment over any of several scandals. Judges of the Court of Appeals sit with the state senate as jurors in an impeachment trial, according to New York law. Singas, a close ally of Cuomo, may be seen as a reliable vote to acquit, if impeachment proceedings against Cuomo reach the senate.
Anthony Cannataro, Cuomo’s nominee to fill the other Court of Appeals vacancy, is an administrative judge in New York City, whose nomination has not provoked public opposition among advocates.
“Judge Cannataro is well respected, and by all accounts a fair and good judge to be in front of in civil court,” Fontier said. “We ultimately hope he will be great on criminal issues.”