The New York Senate voted Tuesday to confirm Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s nominee, Madeline Singas, giving the Nassau County district attorney a spot on the Court of Appeals and entrenching the bench’s conservative stronghold. Singas, a prosecutor who opposed bail reform and declined to prosecute police officers who viciously beat a Black man, will now serve a 14-year term as one of seven judges on New York’s highest court.
Singas joins six other justices — including Judge Anthony Cannataro, whom the Senate also confirmed Tuesday — who have all been nominated by Cuomo. In addition to a potential impeachment trial against Cuomo over sexual assault allegations and underreported Covid-19 nursing home deaths, Singas will now have the power to adjudicate some of the most vital criminal justice reform cases in a state with an incarceration rate four times that of Canada and where Black and Latino residents are disproportionately put behind bars.
Some progressives have seen Cuomo’s decision to nominate Singas as a calculated political choice. Along with the Senate, the Court of Appeals would rule in Cuomo’s impeachment trial if the state legislature votes to impeach him, and Singas appears to have a connection to the governor. Singas has called the chief judge of the Court of Appeals, Janet DiFiore, a “friend” and “mentor.” DiFiore, meanwhile, has been an ally to Cuomo for years: The governor appointed DiFiore to two gubernatorial positions before nominating her as chief judge and requested in February that Attorney General Letitia James work with DiFiore to find a lawyer to investigate Cuomo’s sexual assault allegations. (James declined.)
Andrew Cuomo’s office strongly denied the claims that Cuomo nominated Singas for his own political gain. “She came from a list from a judicial screening committee that found her qualified and the merits of her qualifications were vetted and ultimately approved by the state senate,” spokesperson Rich Azzopardi said in an email to The Intercept. “That’s the process and if you want to print dumb conspiracies from ill informed members of the advocacy industrial complex that’s up to you.”
Singas has a history of fighting progressive criminal justice reforms as Nassau County DA, most notably when she led the charge against the state’s 2019 bail and discovery reform laws, some of the most progressive in the country. The sweeping legislation, which went into effect in 2020, eliminated cash bail for most nonviolent offenses and allowed defense attorneys to access and review the prosecution’s evidence without having to submit a written request.
The reforms aimed to level the playing field for defense attorneys and for defendants unable to afford to pay bail. But Singas argued that the changes would allow repeat offenders to commit more crimes.
“I was one of the most vocal opponents against many of these changes,” Singas said in 2019 after the bill’s passage. “We implored legislators to put in standards so that prosecutors could argue to judges about public safety. That was wholeheartedly rejected and now we’re in the situation we’re in.”
Even after Singas lost that battle, her assistant district attorney and general counsel began giving presentations to prosecutors across the state on ways to hold a defendant on bail after they were charged with a non-bailable offense — effectively skirting the new laws, critics argued.
As a member of New York’s highest court, Singas could play a role in shaping the legislation she’s spent two years fighting against. Cases regarding the implementation of the new bail and discovery reforms have swirled in lower-level courts since the legislation went into effect in 2020, and these questions could soon make their way to the Court of Appeals.
“Those are going to get up to the court pretty quickly because they’re the nuts and bolts of litigation,” said Amanda Jack, a public defender who was part of a group of attorneys and activists in opposition to Singas’s nomination. “Every Democrat should be against [Singas’s] nomination because she’s going to undo the landmark legislation they passed.”
Singas will also have a say in an upcoming decision that could have monumental implications for the state’s undocumented immigrant community. On Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit referred a question to the New York Court of Appeals over whether “petit larceny,” also known as simple theft or shoplifting, is a crime “involving moral turpitude.” If the court rules in the affirmative, then simple theft and shoplifting could become deportable offenses, threatening hundreds of undocumented immigrants and potentially violating New York City’s “sanctuary city” policies.
In addition to Singas’s stance on bail and discovery reform, progressives have blasted her pro-cop track record as Nassau DA. In 2019, Singas declined to prosecute police officers in Freeport, New York, who beat, tased, and cursed at Akbar Rogers, a 44-year-old Black man, while arresting him. She defended the decision, claiming an “independent expert found the level of force used to be justified by law and policy.” The case drew the attention of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who voiced support for activists’ demands to launch a state investigation, though that never materialized.
Singas’s confirmation arrives amid nationwide calls by progressives to nominate more public defenders as judges, since the overwhelming majority of those serving on the bench previously worked as prosecutors or corporate attorneys. Some of these calls have been heard: President Joe Biden has notably nominated more public defenders to the high courts than his predecessors, Alliance for Justice’s Amber Saddler noted in a blog post in April.
Activists and some lawmakers staged a campaign to oppose Singas, pointing to her punitive approach to criminal justice as a district attorney and her lack of judicial and appellate advocacy experience. The New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which issued recommendations on the seven candidates recommended to the Court of Appeals, did not recommend Singas, arguing that her experience didn’t extend beyond criminal prosecution and thus wasn’t adequate training for the state’s top court.
“She lacks many of the kinds of experiences one would hope for among nominees to the state’s highest court. For example, she has no judicial experience or significant personal experience as an appellate advocate,” said Alan Lewis, the chair of the group’s judicial screening committee.
On Tuesday, five Democratic state senators made a last-ditch effort to encourage their colleagues to vote against her confirmation, releasing a joint statement Tuesday morning that read: “In a moment when our state and country are experiencing an unprecedented and long overdue racial justice reckoning, it is especially harmful to appoint a judge who has shown an active resistance to an equitable criminal legal system.”
“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 a prosecutor,” said New York Sen. Julia Salazar, who signed Tuesday morning’s statement.
Despite the opposition, more moderate Democrats expressed support for the district attorney. State Sen. Anna Kaplan’s office said: “In regards to those who would draw conclusions about Madeline Singas based solely on the fact that she has had a distinguished career as a prosecutor, Senator Kaplan believes those individuals should get to know Madeline better, examine her accomplishments and record, and not put her in a box based on expectation and assumption.”
A spokesman for the Nassau DA’s office refused to comment on criticisms regarding Singas’ limited experience and pro-carceral track record, and instead directed The Intercept to past comments in support of Singas’ confirmation from Scott Banks, the attorney-in-chief of the Legal Aid Society in Nassau County, and Oscar Michelin, a criminal defense attorney and member of the Long Island Hispanic Bar.
Even though Singas has been confirmed, progressives will have another shot at shaping the court soon, when Justice Eugene Fahey reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70 on December 31. The next opening after Fahey will most likely come in 2025, when Chief Judge Janet DiFiore turns 70.