John Sweeny Jr., the Only Remaining Republican Supreme Court Judge in Manhattan, Calls It Quits After 30-Year Career

John Sweeny Jr., who is from Putnam County, was one of 10 Republican judges transported to Manhattan by Republican Gov. George Pataki in a controversial move to bring conservative voices to an appellate court he considered too liberal.

When John Sweeny Jr. retires this year from the Appellate Division after a 32-year career, there will be no Republican Supreme Court justices in Manhattan or the Bronx. Or Queens or Brooklyn for that matter.

Sweeny, who is from Putnam County, was one of 10 Republican Supreme Court judges transported to the Appellate Division in Manhattan by Republican Gov. George Pataki in a controversial move to bring conservative voices to a court he considered too liberal. Some of the Republican judges Pataki brought in came from more than 100 miles away because the governor couldn’t find enough like-minded judges in New York City.

“Pataki had been openly critical of judges whom he believed had treated defendants too leniently. Some in the legal community argued at the time that the transfer of judges was an effort on his part to alter the ideological makeup of the First Department, said Barry Kamins, who was president of the New York City Bar Association when Pataki was governor.

“In my opinion, this policy was ill-advised, since the courts of a community should have an understanding of the people they serve as well as a connection to their culture,” said Kamins who was the administrative judge of the Criminal Court of New York City before returning to private practice.

Appointees to the state’s four Appellate Divisions must be sitting Supreme Court judges who are nominated by party conventions and elected, and New York City voters rarely elect Republican judges. Staten Island is the only borough with any Republican Supreme Court judges: Justices Ralph Porzio and Marina Cora Mundy, who were elected this past November. So when Pataki looked for Republicans in the First Department, he didn’t find any.

The Republicans he did find in other parts of the state have since retired, gone back to their home counties or lost reelection, making Sweeny the lone Republican on the court for the last four years. Justice David Friedman, a Brooklyn Democrat Pataki appointed to the First Department, is the governor’s only judge still assigned to the ornate Madison Avenue courthouse, which covers Manhattan and the Bronx.

“I think he was a really great judge,” Friedman said in recounting the years he spent sitting next to Sweeny on the bench. “When we take the bench, we have to try to leave our agendas and our previous thoughts behind. He was someone who very much epitomized looking at each case on its own merits.”

Retired Justice David Saxe, who left the court in 2017 and become a partner at Morrison Cohen, was one of only three Democrats Pataki appointed to the court in his three terms as governor between 1995 and 2006.

“I never thought of Sweeny or any of the others as Republican judges. I thought of them as upstate judges. He was a very balanced jurist and frankly, I thought he fit right in with the downstaters. I didn’t think that anybody treated them like pariahs,” Saxe said.

First Department Presiding Justice Rolando Acosta said that Sweeny’s departure means the court will have five vacancies including Justice Marcy Kahn who is retiring in September. In April, in a break from longstanding tradition, the court reduced some of its five-judge panels to four because of the vacancies.

Two of the vacancies go back to 2017 when Judge Paul Feinman was elevated to the Court of Appeals and Justice Karla Moskowitz reached the mandatory retirement age of 76. Justice Richard Andrias, the only other Democrat Pataki appointed to the court, retired last year. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has yet to name any replacements.

“We often speak of diversity in terms of immutable characteristics, gender, race, ethnicity,” Acosta said. “Although we need to talk more about diversity of perspective and bring in different experiences. How you examine the underlying facts of the case. That’s what John brought to the bench with a lot of care, a lot of sensitivity.”

Sweeny, who could have stayed on the court until age 76, decided not to apply to remain past age 70 and so must now leave by the end of the year. In an interview last week, he said that he may decide to retire sooner because of serious health problems. “I’m playing it day by day right now,” he said.

“It’s a mixed feeling because this has been home for 15 years and I’ve been a judge for 32 years,” he said.

While Sweeny acknowledges he has often been in the minority, he said his colleagues appreciate hearing his more conservative views. “The whole experience, It has been very collegial. We may disagree on matters, but it’s never been an all-out war,” he said.

Sweeny was first elected to the Putnam County Court in 1986 and the New York State Supreme Court in 1999. Pataki appointed him to the Appellate Division in 2004. Chief Judge Janet DiFiore selected him to serve by special designation on the state’s highest court, the New York State Court of Appeals, in February.

Sweeny said the cases he handled on the Court of Appeals were the capstone of his career. Asked to name his most important decision, he said it wouldn’t be any of the Commercial Division cases that were worth millions and millions of dollars. Instead, he said, it would be the domestic violence or custody cases he handled as a Family Court judge because ordinary people depended on him to make the right decision.

“In some cases, he gave a little bit of a different perspective. But it was always very rational, never confrontational,” said First Department Justice Barbara Kapnick. “He also was a Family Court judge and I think he was terrific when it came to Family Court issues.”

( From The New York Law Journal )

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