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Jonathan Lippman and Shelly Silver grew up together on the Lower East Side in the 1950s, living next door in the insular Grand Street projects and sitting near each other's family in the neighborhood's Orthodox shul. After both graduated from law school in 1968 and drifted into low-level courthouse gigs in Manhattan in their early careers, one went on to become the longest-serving Democratic legislative leader in modern New York history, master of an unprecedented 107 to 43 majority in the State Assembly. The other remained largely unknown, except inside the state's vast court system.
Last month, the two old friends reunited in the Red Room in the State Capitol to celebrate their emergence as the most powerful duo in state government.
Below the political radar, the black-hatted, still religious, and gravel-toned Silver, who is celebrating his 65th birthday and 15th year as speaker this month, has been quietly boosting the more secular Lippman for years. Last month, he finally pushed Lippman from the series of back-office management posts where he had labored for years to the job of top gavel in the State Judiciary.
Appointed Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals in mid-January by the accidental governor, David Paterson, whose troubled tenure continues to erode his own ranking among the state's power elite, Lippman is awaiting virtually certain confirmation in the next few days from the new and narrow Senate Democratic majority. He will take over a court system that spends $2.3 billion a year, employs 21,000, and is likely to deal with issues like gay marriage, the housing foreclosure crisis, Wall Street criminality, and the still anti–city school aid formula during the six years he will reign until his mandatory retirement at 70.
A year younger than his boyhood friend, Lippman awaits State Senate confirmation before becoming the first chief judge since 1898 to lead the state's highest court without ever serving as one of the court's nine members [actually, there are seven seats -- ed.]. When Silver gave a short speech at Paterson's announcement of the appointment, Lippman quipped: "Two kids from the Lower East Side—not too shabby."
In fact, the story of how Lippman reached this pinnacle has its shabby side. He exudes an above-politics reform aura, but he did not climb to the top of the state's judiciary without making some stops in the dark along the way. His ally, Silver, helped clear that path to power, working a system whose anti-democratic ways have been rebuked by two federal courts.
Lippman has been a hardworking ambassador and manager of the courts for decades, visiting almost all of the system's 343 locations and acquainting himself with virtually every one of its 1,300 judges. But he has also been its consummate political player, seemingly more interested in influence than law.
Jonathan Lippman will soon preside over the most complicated and significant cases in New York, even though he's never practiced as a private attorney.
His legal career began in a judge's chambers as a law secretary and, when he turns 70 in six years, it will end there. In fact, he has spent so much of his career as a bureaucrat that he's written only 16 signed judicial opinions, 14 of them since Paterson's predecessor, Eliot Spitzer, made him the presiding justice of Manhattan's Appellate Division in 2007. With that scant a record as a jurist, it's impossible to know what his judicial philosophy is, and even his 24-year tenure in three appointive administrative posts offers no consistent thread about his judicial values or independence.
On one hand, he described himself in a 2006 speech as "unencumbered by parochial or partisan or political agendas," and is so widely considered a champion of court reform that New York's Bar Association found him "exceptionally well qualified" for chief judge, ahead of the "well-qualified" ratings it gave long-standing Appeals judges. The Times endorsed him, and he was given the Rehnquist Award for Judicial Excellence in November by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Judge John Roberts.
On the other hand, he is such a skilled and connected insider that when he ran for the first and only time in 2005, he was the only candidate in the state running for Supreme Court who couldn't be voted against. Lippman was on all five ballot lines: Democratic, Republican, Working Families, Conservative, and Independent. In fact, he had refused to allow his name to be put in the nomination unless every party backed him for the seat, which is the top trial court of the unified court system. (In New York, the "Supreme" Court is not actually supreme: The Court of Appeals is at the top of the judicial pile, above the Appellate Division and the Supreme Court, where major civil and criminal cases are heard.)
David Alpert, the onetime Democratic leader in Lippman's home county of Westchester, says the first time he ever heard of the man was when he got a call from a Republican, State Senator Nick Spano. Spano told him that he and a Westchester Democratic assemblyman, Richard Brodsky, had passed an amendment creating a new Supreme Court seat in Westchester, and Spano wanted Lippman "to be cross-endorsed for it." That meant Spano wanted the Democrats, Republicans, and other minor parties to all vote at their judicial nominating conventions to put Lippman's name on their ballot lines for this new, vacant seat, in exchange for which the Republicans would demand that the Democrats endorse at least one of their candidates.