Trailblazing jurist mourned by colleagues and lawmakers

Judge Paul Feinman. Photo courtesy of the New York State Court of Appeals.

Trailblazing jurist Paul Feinman, 61, an associate judge of the state Court of Appeals, passed away on March 31 just days after he officially retired from the bench last week due to illness. Lawmakers and colleagues shared their condolences this week.

“Justice Feinman was a historic jurist who made this state stronger through his service. I am so grateful for all he has done and deeply saddened by this loss. He leaves behind an extraordinary career and lasting legacy, a beacon of light in the LGBTQ community, and a fierce advocate for human rights,” said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

His death was announced by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore who described him in a statement as “a kind and gentle man who was loved by many.” 

Feinman leaves behind a great legacy, being the first openly gay judge on the Court of Appeals, appointed in 2017 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Feinman was known as a champion of LGBTQ+ rights. But he was also fighting a battle against leukemia after he was diagnosed in 2015, and even received a bone marrow transplant in 2016.

But  “even as his illness progressed, his productivity and the quality of his writings and contributions never suffered,” said DiFiore.

Raised in Merrick, Nassau County, Feinman grew up the third of five children. He studied at Columbia College, Columbia University and the University of Minnesota Law School where he earned his J.D. in 1985. 

While in law school, Judge Feinman founded an association of LGBTQ students. He was an active member and former officer of a number of LGBTQ professional organizations, including the Richard C. Failla LGBTQ Commission of the New York Courts, the International Association of LGBTQ+ Judges, and the LGBT Bar Association of Greater New York.

After starting his legal career, Feinman rose through the ranks of New York’s legal system. He spent several years as a public defender with the Legal Aid Society of Nassau County and in Manhattan before becoming a principal law clerk.  He was eventually elected to be Justice of the Supreme Court of New York in 2007, and nominated by Cuomo for the Court of Appeals.

Cuomo also released a statement on his passing. 

“It’s often said that law reflects the morals of society, and Justice Feinman reflected the very best of New York. The first openly gay person to serve on the Court of Appeals, he was a lifelong champion of fairness, progress, equality, and justice – the very cornerstones of our state’s history and our country’s democracy. And just as importantly, he was a mentor, friend, and role model to countless LGBTQ attorneys, helping to shepherd us out of an era where being openly LGBTQ could mean disbarment and into an era where government embodies the public it serves.”

Feinman’s seat on the Court of Appeals remains empty, and the Commission of Judicial Nomination seeks to fill it. The commission will “recommend to the Governor three to seven well-qualified candidates,” to fill the seat of the late Justice Feinman and Justice Leslie E. Stein, who is to retire in June of this year.

The Commission, “is entrusted with the responsibility for evaluating, and then recommending to the Governor, candidates to fill vacancies on the Court of Appeals.” Additionally, they are legally required to report to the Governor new candidates within 120 days of the vacancy. 

The Commission will begin the process of reviewing candidates who have been practicing law in the state for at least ten years. 

Not only has Justice Feinman left behind big shoes to fill, but a legacy of commitment to public service, and that of a beloved justice and friend.

DiFiore added “Judge Feinman was the essence of personal and professional integrity, decency and civility. No one who knew Judge Feinman could be unmoved by his personal warmth and empathy, good humor and sparkling intelligence.”