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POLITICS

Senate panel backs nominee to top NY court

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Politics,Associated Press,New York

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) -- The state Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the nomination Tuesday of a longtime jurist to fill a vacancy on New York's top court, with all the senators giving her a standing ovation afterward.

The committee voted unanimously after some senators said Justice Sheila Abdus-Salaam was the best-qualified nominee they had seen in decades. If confirmed by the full Senate as expected, she will be the first African-American woman on the seven-member Court of Appeals.

The most critical quality for judges is to remain independent and true to their principles and push away all political pressures, said Committee Chairman Sen. John Bonacic, a Hudson Valley Republican.

"That's what impressed me most about you," he said.

Sen. John DeFrancisco, a Syracuse Republican, said he'd examined Abdus-Salaam's decisions and admired their clarity and reasoning, whether or not he agreed with them. They ranged from criminal to civil cases, including complex civil law and legal and medical malpractice.

It was a marked change from the reception the committee gave in February to Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo's first nominee to the top court, who was grilled by senators for a few hours about her credentials and limited judicial experience. Seven Republican senators, including Bonacic, voted against advancing law professor Jenny Rivera's nomination, though she was confirmed.

The 60-year-old Abdus-Salaam was among seven candidates recommended by a state commission that found her well-qualified. She said she is comfortable with people from all walks of life and approaches each case with an open mind and applies the law. "Whether I'm ruling on a case involving a criminal trial, a landlord-tenant issue or a multimillion-dollar high-stakes commercial dispute, my approach is the same and has served me well," she said.

"In my opinion, judges must uphold the precepts of our treasured democracy, among them, innocent until proven guilty, due process and equal justice under the law without fear or favor," she said. Asked whether her opinions are balanced with respect to legislative history, she said the Legislature makes the laws, the administration enforces them and the court interprets them.

Abdus-Salaam was elected to trial-level state Supreme Court in 1993, re-elected in 2007 and joined the state's midlevel Appellate Division court in Manhattan in 2009. If confirmed, she would replace Judge Theodore Jones Jr., who died in November.

A graduate of Barnard College and Columbia Law School, she worked for East Brooklyn Legal Services Corp., the state attorney general and New York City Office of Labor Services. She was a judge on New York City's Civil Court from 1992 to 1993.

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