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Buffalo judge confirmed for NY's highest court

Judge Shirley Troutman, wearing a black robe and pearls.
New York NOW
Judge Shirley Troutman was confirmed to the Court of Appeals Wednesday by the state Senate.

New York’s highest state court has a new judge. Shirley Troutman, previously an appellate justice from Buffalo, was confirmed to the Court of Appeals on Wednesday by the state Senate in Albany.

Troutman is the second Black woman to serve on the high court, which frequently makes decisions that strike down, or change, state law and regulations that affect millions of people. She’s also Gov. Kathy Hochul’s first nomination to the court, which is comprised of seven jurists.

Troutman will replace the outgoing Associate Judge Eugene Fahey, who had to leave his post after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70 last year.

Speaking exclusively to New York NOW following her confirmation, Troutman said she was both overwhelmed and still surprised that she would ascend to the state’s highest court.

“I began my career at Albany Law School and to come back here and to be a member of the Court of Appeals and join our Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, and my now colleagues on that court, is a day I never imagined was possible,” Troutman said.

Hochul, who also hails from Western New York, celebrated her confirmation in a statement Wednesday.

"Justice Shirley Troutman will be an extraordinary addition to the New York State Court of Appeals," Hochul said. "During her confirmation hearings, Justice Troutman showed New Yorkers why she is well-suited to join our state's highest court: her extraordinary qualifications, her superlative legal mind, her fair-minded judicial philosophy, and her commitment to equity and justice for all New Yorkers."

Buffalo's mayor, Byron Brown, and congressman, Brian Higgins, joined in with congratulations Wednesday morning.

Troutman's confirmation was preceded by a series of positive remarks from members of the State Senate on both sides of the aisle. Lawmakers said they appreciated her three decades on the bench, and her experience as a former prosecutor.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Westchester) said Troutman had impressed lawmakers during her appearance before the Judiciary Committee Tuesday.

“You are always that person who came up in your community who fought, and learned, and studied, and kept progressing and moving forward,” Stewart-Cousins said. “And you touched, and taught everyone. You inspired people who are not easily inspired.”

With Troutman on the Court of Appeals, former prosecutors now represent four of the seven seats on the high court. Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and Associate Judges Madeline Singas and Michael Garcia also served as prosecutors at some point during their respective careers. That was initially met with some pushback from lawmakers who wanted to see a nominee with experience in criminal defense, particularly as a public defender.

In the end, that experience didn’t dissuade lawmakers from approving Troutman, who opined on the role of a prosecutor during her interview with the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“It's not to persecute the accused, or win convictions at any cost, but always to pursue justice for everyone involved,” Troutman said. “Not only for the victims, their families and society as a whole, but for the accused, whose constitutional right to due process must be safeguarded.”

The Judiciary Committee voted unanimously on Tuesday to advance Troutman to the full Senate, where she was confirmed Wednesday.

Troutman has been on the bench for about three decades, following a career as both a county-level and federal prosecutor. She was selected as a city court judge in Buffalo in the mid-1990s and later went on to serve as a county court judge in Erie County and an acting justice of the State Supreme Court, the state’s lowest tier.

Three years ago, she was selected to co-chair of the Franklin H. Williams Judicial Commission. The panel, created in the late 1980s, is tasked with addressing and preventing racial bias in the state court system, from judges to employees.

Criminal justice advocates weren’t critical of Troutman on Wednesday, but said they would have preferred a nominee with a background in criminal defense.

“Judge Troutman is a well-regarded jurist, and importantly, she is the second Black woman to ever serve on the state’s highest court,” said Peter Martin from the Center for Community Alternatives. “However, her background as a prosecutor intensifies an existing imbalance at a moment when New York desperately needs high-court judges with experience representing our most vulnerable communities.”

It’s unclear when, or if, Hochul will have another opportunity to fill a seat on the Court of Appeals while she’s in office. None of the court’s seven judges are near retirement age at the moment and each serve a 14-year term under statute. Each was nominated within the last decade.

WBFO's Marian Hetherly contributed to this story.