Sunday, February 14, 2021

Alexandra Murphy, Daughter of New York's Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, Takes Seat as a Judge in the 9th District


Alexandra Murphy.  She is a state Supreme Court judge in the New York State’s
9th Judicial District.

DiFiore’s Daughter Secured Judicial Post in Wake of Cuomo Move

When a main opponent was elevated to a judgeship on the Court of Claims, attorney Alexandra Murphy sailed to a state Supreme Court seat in the Hudson Valley, political insiders say.

The daughter of New York’s top judge sailed to a state Supreme Court seat last fall after Gov. Andrew Cuomo elevated one of her main opponents to a separate judicial post, political insiders say.

Alexandra Murphy, 36, has quietly started a 14-year term as a state Supreme Court judge in the Ninth Judicial District, which covers five counties in the mid-Hudson region.

Murphy, who is the daughter of Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, is set to make a salary of $210,900.

The governor nominated one of Murphy’s main competitors, court attorney Veronica Hummel, as a judge for the state Court of Claims in July 2020, according to party insiders. That move cleared the path for Murphy to receive the Democratic party nomination less than three weeks later, which earned her a spot on the ballot under the party line, they said.

“I felt that was an embarrassment to the party,” said one judicial delegate, weighing in on the maneuver that allowed Murphy an easier track to the nomination.

Murphy went on to receive more than 557,000 votes in the November general election, coming in second overall and securing one of the four open state Supreme Court judgeships.

Murphy, who was rated as “well qualified” by two county bar associations, had a 10-year career as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan. She worked in a part-time role for more than half of her time there, according to a spokesman for the district attorney’s office.

Running for the Bench

The Democratic Party nomination is key for state Supreme Court candidates running in the Ninth Judicial District, where Democrats hold a wide voter registration advantage over Republicans. 

Murphy had the least amount of legal experience among candidates vying for the Democratic nomination, even though she was qualified for the spot, according to several Democrats with knowledge about the race who spoke to the Law Journal under the condition of anonymity.

As a lawyer, she had only worked as an assistant district attorney but was running for a judicial position that dealt with a wide variety of civil cases, they said.

In the district, there’s a process for getting the Democratic nomination for a state Supreme Court seat, several insiders said. In general, past Democratic candidates spent several years attending political party events and interviewing with local political committees, they said.

That timeline appeared to not apply for Murphy, who gained the party nomination less than a year after becoming legally eligible for the judicial post, they said. Under state law, a person must be admitted to practice law in the state for at least 10 years before serving as a state Supreme Court judge.

Lucian Chalfen, a state court system spokesman, acknowledged that Murphy handles matrimonial and civil matters in Westchester County as a judge. 

“It is not unusual for a newly elected or appointed Judge to be assigned by court administrators to a new practice of law,” he said in a statement to the Law Journal.

Murphy’s campaign gained the endorsement of many local political committees and several party leaders, including Reginald Lafayette, a former Westchester County Democratic party chair.

Also endorsing Murphy was Kristen Zebrowski Stavisky, who is the chair of the Rockland County Democratic party. She described Murphy as someone who was smart, dynamic and perfectly capable of serving as a state Supreme Court judge.

The Westchester County Bar Association rated Murphy as “well qualified” for the position, as did the Dutchess County Bar Association.

Murphy did not run under her mother’s last name and many Democrats, even those who raised eyebrows about her campaign, said she never brought up her mother’s position during their interactions with her.

Some party members said the high-profile status of Murphy’s mother was unavoidable, raising questions over how her mother’s public prominence impacted the race.

There is no indication that DiFiore played a direct role in Murphy’s campaign, or the move that placed Hummel on the Court of Claims.

“The Chief Judge neither appoints nor anoints Judges, including her daughter,” Chalfen said in a statement.

DiFiore, who herself was nominated by Cuomo, is the head of New York’s judicial branch and the state’s top court. She also oversees a multibillion-dollar budget and a sprawling court system that includes judges and nonjudicial employees across the state.

Her reputation runs deeper in Westchester County, where she previously served as a county court judge and spent many years as the county’s district attorney, said one judicial delegate.

DiFiore and Murphy did not make themselves available for an interview.

Prosecutorial Career

A graduate of Fordham University law school, Murphy spent more than 10 years as a prosecutor for the Manhattan district attorney’s office—an experience she highlighted during her run for state Supreme Court.

Murphy, who started as an assistant district attorney in September 2009, worked in a trial bureau for years before working in a quality of life unit, according to office spokesman Danny Frost.

Murphy worked in a part-time role for most of her employment at the office and had transitioned to that status in 2014, he said. When she left the office in early 2020, Murphy had less than five years as a full-time prosecutor, according to Frost.

Chalfen said Murphy went to part-time status when she had her first child and she did work as a supervisor at one point during her part-time status.

Knowing how to balance work and life, he said, allows her to have more empathy for litigants and to be part of a more inclusive judiciary. He implied Murphy “should be commended” for wanting to emulate her mother’s decades-long career.

In a campaign video, Murphy appeared to reference her prosecutorial experience and said she had dedicated her career to public service.

“The knowledge and experience I have gained over the last decade practicing in one of the busiest courthouses in the country have prepared me to serve in this next capacity,” she said.

The former prosecutor ran on the Democratic and Conservative party lines during last year’s general election.

Murphy was boosted by a well-funded campaign and received a $10,000 loan from her father, Dennis Glazer, in February 2020, according to campaign filings. Glazer is also DiFiore’s husband.

Chalfen said the $10,000 loan was used to kick off Murphy’s campaign. DiFiore and Glazer “maintain separate checking accounts,” he said in a statement.

Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University who focuses on legal ethics, said DiFiore as chief judge has limitations on her political activity, but those do not apply to her husband. Glazer, he said, does not give up his rights as a citizen due to his relationship with DiFiore. 

Gillers also commended Murphy for not running under her mother’s last name.

Now that Murphy is on the bench, DiFiore should not sit on any case in which her daughter was a lower court judge, he said.

Political Jockeying

There were four open judicial spots in the Ninth Judicial District during last year’s general election. But before the Democratic party nominations were settled, political insiders say the main competition came down to three candidates—Murphy, Hummel and Robert Ondrovic—for two open state Supreme Court seats in Westchester County.

Another candidate, E. Loren Williams, was expected to fill an open position in Orange County and Judge Sam Walker in the Ninth Judicial District was an incumbent, making him likely to win reelection, they said.

Before the general election, Democrats in the Ninth Judicial District hold a judicial convention where they nominate candidates for state Supreme Court.

Last year, the Democratic judicial convention appeared to be headed for a contested convention, with Murphy, Ondrovic and Hummel competing for the two open positions, two judicial delegates said.

Hummel had been principal court attorney in White Plains for a state Supreme Court judge, according to a press release.

She had also served as the principal court attorney for a Westchester County Court judge and worked as the principal court attorney for a state Supreme Court judge in New York City, the release said.

Ondrovic conducted more than 300 jury trials and practiced for more than three decades in state Supreme Court, according to campaign material. Attempts to reach Ondrovic for this article were unsuccessful.

Many people wanted to back Murphy because they saw her as a younger candidate who was personable, said one judicial delegate from the district. It’s possible that Murphy could have come out with one of the two spots even with competition, the judicial delegate said.

“So what happened took away any risk from anybody,” they said, referring to Hummel’s nomination to the state Court of Claims.

Less than three weeks from the judicial convention, Hummel announced on Facebook that she was confirmed as a judge on the Court of Claims and expected to become an acting Supreme Court judge in the Bronx. 

While my application was first filed last year, this opportunity suddenly presented itself,” read the July 2020 post on her Facebook page.

Hummel expressed interest in a Court of Claims judgeship during the summer, according to the judicial delegate, and it was known that a Court of Claims nomination could resolve the issue of three candidates running for two open Westchester judgeships.

“In the heat of battle, it may seem like a consolation prize. But it’s not,” the judicial delegate said.

Yet Tina Volz-Bongar, a district leader with the Peekskill Democratic City Committee, said she couldn’t help but feel disheartened over Hummel taking the Court of Claims position—even though the move did get her on the bench.

To Volz-Bongar, it felt like the party didn’t do its job. Democratic voters trust the party to follow a process that puts forward the best candidate, she said.

“And it didn’t happen that way,” she said. “It’s so disappointing to me.”

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