Why Did New York’s Senate Appoint a Cuomo Hack to the Court of Appeals?

It’s not surprising that New York’s centrist governor, Andrew Cuomo, would nominate a vocal opponent of criminal justice reform to the state’s powerful court of appeals. But why is a supposedly progressive state senate confirming her?

Defense attorneys and reform advocates lobbied intensely against confirming Madeline Singas to a fourteen-year term on the New York State Court of Appeals. (Alejandra Villa Loarca / Newsday RM via Getty Images)

Besieged by scandal, no longer even much involved in the messy business of passing legislation, Governor Andrew Cuomo is perhaps weaker than he’s ever been. The New York Democrat is awaiting the outcome of a state attorney general’s investigation into allegations of sexual harassment and another federal investigation into his cover-up of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes.

But in recent weeks, Cuomo inexplicably was allowed to score one significant victory: the appointment of a reactionary Democrat with a checkered political history, Madeline Singas, to the state’s highest court, the court of appeals. Some progressives and socialists tried and failed to rally opposition against Singas, who serves as Nassau County’s district attorney, undone by other Democrats in the state senate who decided to enable Cuomo.

As New York Focus reported, defense attorneys and reform advocates lobbied intensely against confirming Singas to a fourteen-year term on the court of appeals, arguing that her prominent opposition to new criminal justice reforms and tough-on-crime approach would guarantee years of right-wing rulings from the seven-member court.

Singas opposed the 2019 overhaul of bail laws in New York, which eliminated money bail in many instances. Defense attorneys said Singas, as Nassau DA, was notorious for shielding evidence from defendants, setting high bail, and seeking inordinately tough sentences.

An assistant district attorney who worked under Singas actually gave presentations to prosecutors on how to find legal loopholes to hold more defendants on bail and delay trials, despite New York’s new laws on limiting the use of bail, expanding discovery, and speeding up trials. In 2015, Singas drafted legislation — it never became law — that would have allowed drug dealers to be prosecuted for murder if their customers fatally overdosed.

Before then, as a young prosecutor in Queens, she withheld evidence that would have exonerated three men falsely accused of murder. They would spend decades in prison due to her actions. And beyond her dubious prosecuting career, Singas happens to be a landlord of a rent-stabilized building in Queens.

How did Singas land on the state’s most powerful court at the behest of Cuomo? The state senate, which has a Democratic supermajority, confirmed her. Just ten Democrats voted against Singas while thirty-two supported her. It was a massive — albeit quiet — failure for the Left, and created new doubts about how far ascendant Democrats, who took control of the chamber in 2019, would go to challenge Cuomo.

Singas, a first generation Greek American, had the strong backing of the deputy leader of the state senate, Michael Gianaris, who is a power broker in the Greek community. Though originally aligned with Joe Crowley’s Queens Democratic machine, Gianaris veered left shortly after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won, becoming a full-throated supporter of progressive candidates and initiatives, and even endorsing Bernie Sanders for president in 2020.

Gianaris, however, seemed to have reverted to his pre-AOC instincts, choosing a local ally — Gianaris and Singas have roots in Queens — over the broader Left movement.

For advocates who tried to organize against Singas in the state senate, there was a sense that even self-identified progressives were unwilling to do very much to scuttle the nomination. Eventual no votes were begged, repeatedly, to come out in opposition before any kind of vote was taken, in the hopes of building momentum against the nomination. But several outright refused.

The irony of Singas rising to the court of appeals is that she could, in theory, be in position to defeat the criminal justice reforms the senate passed in 2019 if future legal challenges emerge. Scuttling her nomination would have been unprecedented, but would have sent a strong signal to voters that these reforms mattered. Letting Singas fly through — and allowing Cuomo to get his judge — confirmed that New York’s state capitol hasn’t changed as much as some believed.

Still, a greater question lingers — why not go to the mat against Cuomo, who has fallen from the peak of popularity he enjoyed during the pandemic? Why not fight a battle in the media against Singas, who is not particularly beloved or well known? Democrats will have to ask themselves these questions in the coming years, as Singas’s tenure stretches on and on and their achievements, perhaps, come under genuine threat.