Utica federal judge reverses retirement after Biden appoints Albany successor

A federal judge in Utica rescinded his retirement this summer amid controversy over his appointed replacement being from Albany, not the Utica area.

President Joseph Biden nominated Jorge A. Rodriguez July 13 to take the place of Judge David N. Hurd, who serves in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of New York.

Hurd last year indicated that he intended to take senior status, a type of semi-retirement federal judges over 65 who have served at least 15 years may take. Hurd said he would make the career move “upon the confirmation of my successor,” according to a Nov. 1, 2021 letter to Biden. Rodriguez would be the first Hispanic judge to preside over the Northern District, according to the White House.

However, a day after Rodriguez’s nomination, Hurd, 85, wrote to the Biden administration to immediately withdraw his intention to take senior status, expressing his viewpoint that his successor should live in the Utica area, and serve out of the federal courthouse there.

Judge David Hurd speaks during a past naturalization ceremony in United States District Court in Utica.

“I will take senior status if a confirmed successor lives in this area and is permanently assigned to the United States Courthouse in Utica, New York,” he wrote.

Since 2014, Rodriguez, 43, of Clifton Park, has served as a New York State assistant attorney general, based in Albany.

On Wednesday, Hurd wrote to Biden to reiterate he was rescinding his retirement, stating he would remain on active status for the foreseeable future. This means there doesn’t appear to be a path to the role for Rodriguez at the moment.

Hurd’s decision to reverse his retirement plans in this case could complicate Biden’s push to diversify federal court benches that have been overwhelmingly white.

“Mr. Rodriguez is an exceptionally qualified candidate who would bring a much-needed diverse perspective to the region’s federal bench,” said Andrea Nill Sanchez, executive director of Latinos for a Fair Judiciary, an advocacy group composed of Latino civil rights organizations, in a statement. “Unless he changes his mind, Judge Hurd’s inexplicable and unprecedented about-face decision to exploit his lifetime tenure to block the appointment of the first-ever Latino judge to serve on (the Northern District of New York) will be a stain on his legacy and a disservice to the people of New York.”

Both Hurd and Rodriguez did not respond to the USA Today Network’s requests for comment.

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Where would Hurd’s successor have presided?

Utica-based Judge David Hurd rescinded his plans for semi-retirement in July, saying his successor should be from Utica. President Joe Biden nominated Jorge Rodriguez, from the Albany area, for the role earlier this year.

Rodriguez indicated he would preside on the bench in Utica, about an hour and a half from the state capital, according to the office of U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, who recommended him for the court seat.

“It has always been the expectation that Judge Hurd’s successor would sit in the Utica courthouse, and Jorge Rodriguez has committed to doing so,” said Jess Fassler, Gillibrand’s chief of staff, in a statement.

Hurd is one of 16 judges serving in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York, which has offices in Albany, Binghamton, Plattsburgh, Syracuse, and Utica. There are currently two active district court judges in Syracuse and two in Albany, along with one — that being Hurd — in Utica.

Hurd, nominated by President Bill Clinton, was confirmed by the Senate in 1999, according to the Federal Judicial Center, which records judges’ biographies. Hurd had been a magistrate judge for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York. Prior to that, he was in private practice for nearly three decades in Utica, serving briefly as an Oneida County prosecutor in the 1960s.

He filled the seat vacated by Constantine George Cholakis, of Rensselaer County, who died in 1996. Cholakis was appointed to the role by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 and appeared to have presided over cases in Albany during his tenure, according to his New York Times obituary.

‘Attempt to steal a judgeship’

New York State Sen. Joseph Griffo, R-Rome, expressed frustration with the nomination, putting out a statement Wednesday calling it “disingenuous attempt to steal a judgeship from the Mohawk Valley and move it to the Capitol District” by Gillibrand.

On Thursday, Griffo told the USA Today Network there were other qualified candidates that could have been chosen, though he was hopeful Hurd rescinding his retirement would stop Rodriguez’s nomination.

“This is practice and tradition here,” he said of having a judge in Utica, later adding. “It’s showing indifference to this community by Sen. Gillibrand.”

While Griffo later noted Hurd’s predecessor had been from the Albany area, he doubled down on the need for Hurd’s replacement to be from the Utica area.

“To me it goes to the essence of this,” he said. “You have a sitting judge, a resident judge presiding here and it’s worked. There’s no need to change that.”

Nomination process meant to reflect U.S. diversity

Rodriguez was one of six nominees Biden announced in July. Currently, Rodriguez works in New York Attorney General Letitia James’ Office in the litigation bureau. He previously worked at New York City and Albany law firms after receiving his law degree in 2004 from Vanderbilt University, where he also received his bachelor’s degree.

The nominees, a White House news release said, were meant to ensure judges reflected the U.S. diversity. Since taking office, Biden has nominated 118 people to federal judicial positions as of July 13, when he announced Rodriguez’s nomination.

Currently, white men comprise about half of all federal court judges, far higher than their share of the U.S. population, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School.

Hispanic federal judges only make up about 9% of all active status judges, about half of how much Hispanic or Latino people make up the U.S. population.

A January report by the Brookings Institute said that, of Biden’s 41 appointees in his first year, 78% were women, 29% were Black, 17% were Asian American, and 2% were Native American. Fifteen percent of appointees were Hispanic.

“We strongly believe that the judiciary, especially the federal judiciary, functions best when it reflects the demographics and diversity of the American population, I don’t think there’s any question in that,” said Carlos Bollar, president of the Hispanic National Bar Association. He added that the group is pleased with Biden’s nomination choices, and the judges confirmed during Biden’s tenure.

“We’ve been excited to celebrate the diversity of these selections across the board, but we still have a lot of ground to cover,” he said.

Bollar said the association vetted Rodriguez and supported his nomination to the Northern District Court of New York. Bollar said he hadn’t seen a judge rescind his senior status.

“It can be frustrating when you have an exceptional candidate like this one, with obstacles that just keep being thrown in the path to progress,” he said.

View Hurd’s July letter rescinding his retirement below, along with a November 2021 letter accepting the senior status designation upon the confirmation of a successor.

H. Rose Schneider covers public safety, breaking and trending news for the Observer-Dispatch in Utica. Email Rose at hschneider@gannett.com.

Eduardo Cuevas is the racial justice reporter for the USA Today’s Network New York state team. Reach Eduardo at Emcuevas1@gannett.com or on Twitter @Eduardomcuevas.

This article originally appeared on New York State Team: Utica federal judge reverses retirement amid controversy over successor

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