By Daniel Wiessner
(Reuters) - New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday nominated a suburban female prosecutor and political ally to replace outgoing Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, one of the most prominent state judges in the country, when he retires later this month.
If confirmed by the state Senate, Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore would become the second female chief judge in the state's history. The chief judge is the top policymaker for the state court system and heads New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals.
Lippman, known for his aggressive advocacy for enhanced legal services for low-income people, must step down at the end of December after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70 earlier this year.
State law gives the Senate 30 days to confirm Court of Appeals nominees, but some observers said they did not expect confirmation proceedings until the Senate returns to the state Capitol in Albany in January. There are no repercussions for failing to meet the 30-day deadline. The Senate has never rejected a governor's nominee for a seat on the court.
DiFiore has been the top prosecutor in Westchester, one of New York's largest counties, since 2006. As district attorney, she has been a vocal advocate for victims of domestic violence and has called for reforms designed to avert wrongful convictions.
Before that, she spent seven years as a county and state judge after working as an assistant district attorney and in private practice earlier in her career.
She also served as the chair of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, a watchdog panel created by Cuomo to enforce new ethics laws the governor championed after his election in 2010.
DiFiore, a former Republican who became a Democrat in 2007, said in a statement she was humbled by the nomination. Cuomo in a statement called DiFiore "tremendously qualified".
DiFiore was chosen from a list of seven candidates sent to Cuomo in October by a state commission.
DiFiore was mentioned in some national news stories two years ago when Robert Durst, the heir to a New York real estate fortune who is currently facing charges that he murdered a friend, subpoenaed her office for records related to the 1981 disappearance of his wife.
Durst said the information he sought would prove that an investigation launched by DiFiore's predecessor, Jeanine Pirro, into his wife's disappearance had been called off, giving him access to money that remained in her estate.
(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner in Albany, New York; editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Alan Crosby)