First Openly Gay Judge Confirmed for New York’s Highest Court

Justice Paul G. Feinman, of the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court in Manhattan, will take the seat left open by the death of Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam.

When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo named the first openly gay judge to the New York Court of Appeals last week, the news thrilled gay rights advocates, many of whom had been disappointed by the state’s highest court.

Some had bitter memories of the court’s 2006 decision in Hernandez v. Robles to uphold the ruling that same-sex couples had no right to marry under the state’s Constitution. Five years then elapsed before the Legislature passed the Marriage Equality Act, giving same-sex couples a right to wed, and four more years passed before the United States Supreme Court guaranteed that right.

So the choice of Paul G. Feinman, an associate justice of the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court in Manhattan, to fill the seat left open by the death of Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam in April was a watershed for gay New Yorkers. It was made doubly sweet because the governor announced the move during NYC Pride week, calling Justice Feinman “an extraordinary human being.”

“I can’t stop thinking back to 2006 when I argued the Hernandez case and we lost in such a devastating way,” said Roberta Kaplan, a prominent gay rights lawyer who has known Justice Feinman since the late 1990s. “And I can’t stop thinking that things would have been different if someone with the experience of Paul Feinman was on the court.”

Justice Feinman, 57, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. After only an hour of friendly queries, the members unanimously approved his appointment, sending it to the Senate floor, where he was confirmed Wednesday.

The judge assured the senators he would be independent of the governor. Asked by the committee chairman, Senator John J. Bonacic, a Sullivan County Republican, if he believed in “judicial activism” or considered himself a “traditionalist” on constitutional questions, Justice Feinman gave a Solomon-like answer: “I decide each case based on the law and the facts. If others want to characterize it, that is up to them.”

None of the senators made an issue of his sexual orientation, but when a Democratic senator noted the governor had selected a white man to succeed a black woman, Justice Feinman hinted that his life experience would be valuable to the court.

“Certainly my entire career has been about promoting equal access and equal justice for all, and I hope I add to the diversity of perspectives that the court considers,” he said.

He also told the panel a recent battle with leukemia would not affect his ability to serve; knocking on the tabletop, he said he had fully recovered after chemotherapy and stem cell transplants.

Justice Feinman grew up in a large Jewish family in Merrick, on Long Island, the third of five children. His mother was a bookkeeper who later worked for the Nassau County Department of Social Services. His father owned a small company in New York City that manufactured trimmings for women’s garments.

In 1981, Justice Feinman graduated from Columbia University with a degree in French literature, the start of a love affair with French culture, friends said. He has made it a tradition to take each of his nieces and nephews to Paris on their 16th birthdays.

As an undergraduate, he worked as a legal intern, helping people in Upper Manhattan navigate the social services maze. “It was from this experience that I first came to truly appreciate how being a lawyer is a helping profession and that helping people can be a source of great satisfaction,” he told the lawmakers.

He earned a full scholarship to the University of Minnesota Law School, where he was a founder of an association of gay students. On graduating, he started his law career as a public defender with the Legal Aid Society, first in Nassau County and then in New York City during the height of the crack epidemic, when the courts were jammed with people charged with drug crimes and violent felonies.

Within two years, he had landed a job as the court lawyer for Justice Angela Mazzarelli, remaining with her for seven and a half years as she moved from the trial courts to the appellate division.

He was also diving into Democratic politics in Chelsea and the West Village in Manhattan, and he became a leader in the L.G.B.T. Bar Association. He handily won a contested election for Civil Court judge in 1996 and was soon serving as an acting Supreme Court justice. He won an election for that seat in 2007, and Governor Cuomo elevated him in 2012 to the Appellate Division, First Department.

Justice Feinman and his husband, Robert Ostergaard, a web publisher, live on Roosevelt Island. They are avid weekend gardeners and fierce Mets fans.

Justice Feinman is considered thoughtful and methodical, a judge whose decisions show empathy for the parties.

In court, Justice Feinman almost never belittles lawyers, even when their arguments are weak, his law clerks said. His former clerks said he treated employees like family, always having a party on their birthdays in his chambers.

Although he tends to side with liberal positions, he is not dogmatic in his thinking, fellow judges said.

“He’s progressive, but I consider him a moderate with progressive instincts,” said former Justice David B. Saxe, who served with Justice Feinman on the Manhattan appellate court.

Friends described Justice Feinman as a “mensch,” a generous and giving person extremely devoted to his family. On many weekends, he goes to Connecticut to care for his widowed mother.

“Complete generosity, both emotional and physical — that is what he has shown to his family members, and I think that extends out to other things,” Ms. Kaplan, the lawyer, said.

In law school, Justice Feinman organized gay students. He was active in the gay rights movement in New York City in the 1990s, serving as the president of the L.G.B.T. Bar Association and Foundation of Greater New York.

“Paul has always been open about his sexual identity, at a time when it wasn’t such an easy thing to be,” Justice Mazzarelli said.

Justice Feinman’s rulings have rarely made news. One exception was in 2011, however, when he ruled on a plan to build a mosque near the 9/11 memorial. He threw out a lawsuit that tried to block the development through a landmark designation, saying the firefighter who brought the action lacked standing.

He also made waves in 2007 when he took a stand against the sealing of records in civil cases, even when both sides want to keep documents secret after a settlement.

For civil rights advocates, however, Justice Feinman’s experiences as a gay man matter almost as much as his legal acumen.

“There is something profoundly important about finally having a L.B.G.T. person on the bench who brings these life experiences,” said Susan Sommer of the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, who has argued four gay rights cases before the court. “It will certainly enrich the conversation when these issues come before the court.”

by James C. McKinley Jr.
Source – The New York Times