Groundbreaking Gay Judge on New York’s Highest Court Dies at 61

MANHATTAN (CN) — One week after abruptly retiring from New York’s Court of Appeals due to illness, Judge Paul Feinman, the first openly gay person to serve on the state’s highest court has died. He was 61 years old.

(Image courtesy of New York State Bar Association via Courthouse News)

Feinman was sworn in to New York Court of Appeals in October 2017, replacing the late Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam, who was the first Black woman to sit on the same bench.

The court’s Chief Judge Janet DiFiore eulogized Feinman on Wednesday as “the essence of personal and professional integrity, decency and civility.”

“Judge Feinman was a meticulous, disciplined and humble jurist who weighed the legal interests at stake in each case with great integrity in order to arrive at the correct and just result,” DiFiore wrote.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who appointed Feinman to Appellate Division in 2012 and to the Court of Appeals five years later, said he was “deeply saddened” by the judge’s passing.

“It’s often said that law reflects the morals of society, and Justice Feinman reflected the very best of New York,” the governor wrote in a statement Wednesday. “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.”

Scott M. Karson, president of the New York State Bar Association, wrote of Feinman, “With his passing, we have lost his wisdom and keen sense of justice.  We have also lost a champion of the rights of our LGBTQ citizens.”

A week earlier, Karson called Feinman’s unforeseen retirement after four years a “tremendous loss” for the New York Court of Appeals.

Feinman began his judicial career in 1996 with election to the Civil Court of the City of New York in lower Manhattan. He sat in the Criminal Court and the Civil Court in New York County before being named an acting justice to the Manhattan Supreme Court in 2004. He was elected to the same court in 2007.

In June 2017, Cuomo picked Feinman from a list of seven candidates forwarded by the state Commission on Judicial Nomination, which is charged with evaluating and recommending candidates for the New York Court of Appeals.

In this still from a 2019 video posted to YouTube, photos are shown on the desk of Judge Paul Feinman at the New York Court of Appeals. Feinman appears in the small center photo marching in New York’s Pride Parade with Governor Andrew Cuomo. (Image courtesy of the LeGaL Foundation via Courthouse News)

Feinman’s appointment filled a vacancy on the bench following the death of Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam, who drowned herself in the Hudson river two months earlier.

The Court of Appeals has a presiding judge and six associate judges, all of who serve 14-year terms.

Feinman received his law degree from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1985. He began his legal career with the Legal Aid Society of Nassau County on Long Island.

Feinman also served as mentor to younger generations of gay jurists through LGBT Bar NY’s Hank Henry Judicial Fellowship Program, which aimed to ensure that openly gay and lesbian candidates were considered for appointed judicial positions.

Feinman and his husband, Robert Ostergaard, lived together on Roosevelt Island.

Ostergaard and Feinman were married in 2013 at the courthouse of the Appellate Division, First Department of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, where Feinman worked at the time.

His death leaves a third vacancy on the Court of Appeals to be filled by the end of the year: Feinman, Judge Leslie Stein, who announced in November that she’ll retire in June; and Judge Eugene Fahey who will leave Dec. 31 because he turns 70 this year.

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