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First Openly Gay Judge Named to NY's Highest Court

By William Vogeler, Esq. on June 20, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Judge Paul G. Feinman will change New York's highest court at a time when change is sometimes uncomfortable.

Filling a vacancy created by the apparent suicide of his predecessor, Feinman will become the first openly gay member of the New York Court of Appeals. Gov. Andrew Cuomo nominated Feinman and sent his name to the state senate for confirmation.

"He is a talented jurist who has dedicated his career to public service and standing up for a fairer and more just New York," Cuomo said. "While we continue to mourn the untimely passing of Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam, Justice Feinman will help ensure that the Court of Appeals upholds the highest principles of law and fairness that embody the very best of New York."

Two Decades

Feinman comes to the court after serving two decades as a judge in New York City. He was first elected to the lower Manhattan municipal court in 1996, then re-elected in 2006.

He was elected to a superior court in 2007, and elevated to an appellate court in 2012. Cuomo selected him for the highest court from a list of seven recommended candidates, including two who are openly gay.

According to reports, at least 10 gay jurists hold positions on the highest courts in their states. Albany Law School Professor Vincent Bonventre, a New York court watcher, said Cuomo made history by naming Feinman to the court.

"In this type of an enterprise -- i.e., appellate decision-making on a court of last resort -- diversity is a huge plus," Bonventre wrote on his blog. "Different backgrounds, schools, careers, experiences, perspectives, deeply held beliefs and values all come into play and all contribute mightily to a wiser, more knowledgeable and insightful result."

Diversity and Controversy

After graduating from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1985, Feinman began his legal career with Legal Aid Society on Long Island. He later worked as a staff attorney for the trial and appellate divisions in the local courts before his election to the bench.

In 2012, he wrote an opinion in a controversial case about a man who had undergone sex-change surgery and wanted to change his birth certificate accordingly, but was denied by the health department. Feinman suggested "a certain ignorance by the department of the lengthy transition process and the lives and experience of transgender people."

In a twist of fate, Feinman's predecessor had written a landmark decision last year, awarding visitation rights to a nonbiological parent of a gay couple. Abdus-Salaam died in an apparent suicide early this year.

Her body was found in a river near her home. She had called in sick that day, locked the door to her house, took a walk and never came back.

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