Sept. 25, 2017 — Judge Jenny Rivera of the New York State Court of Appeals provided an overview of how the court functions at the Justice Ruby Kless Sondock Jurist-In-Residence Program last week at the University of Houston Law Center.
"With the recent changes in our national government, the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and the filling of vacancies in the federal judiciary, there has been a reinvigorated discussion of the role of state courts and protecting individual rights and ensuring access to justice," Rivera said in her lecture on Sept. 18.
The New York Court of Appeals is the highest court in the state of New York. The court consists of seven judges appointed to 14-year terms. The appointment process begins with a judicial commission which screens applicants and then submits a list of candidates to the governor to fill vacancies on the court. The governor's nominees must be approved by a vote of the New York State Senate.
Rivera, an associate judge, was nominated by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Jan. 15, 2013. The New York State Senate confirmed her appointment on Feb. 11, 2013.
Rivera is one of two Latinos on the court, which includes three women justices, an African-American man, and the first openly gay member.
"Our court is quite diverse in professional experience, personal background and geographic representation," Rivera said. "Our chief judge, Janet DiFiore, is the second female chief judge of the court and a former district attorney. Each of us brings an interesting perspective to our work.
"Even with our background, we agree the majority of the time, which only confirms that we are guided by the law. When we disagree we do so based on the law and present it based on the facts of each case."
Rivera has spent her entire professional career in public service. She clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor when Sotomayor served as a judge in the Southern District of New York. She also clerked in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals Pro Se Law Clerk's Office. Rivera worked for the Legal Aid Society's Homeless Family Rights Project, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (renamed Latino Justice PRLDEF), and was appointed by the New York state attorney general as special deputy attorney general for civil rights.
Rivera has been an administrative law judge for the New York State Division for Human Rights, and served on the New York City Commission on Human Rights. Prior to her appointment, she was a tenured faculty member of the City University of New York School of Law, where she founded and served as director of the Law School's Center on Latino and Latina Rights and Equality.
She graduated from Princeton University, and received her J.D. from New York University School of Law and her LL.M. from Columbia University School of Law.
The Jurist-In-Residence program is named in honor of Sondock, a trailblazer in the law who graduated as valedictorian and one of only five women in the UH law school class of 1962. After practicing law for many years, Sondock was appointed to the 234th District Court in 1977, making her the first female state district judge in Harris County. She was appointed to the Texas Supreme Court in 1982, making her the first woman to serve in a regular session of the court. She was proclaimed a "Texas Legal Legend" by the litigation section of the State Bar of Texas in 2016.
"We're very proud of Judge Sondock and her accomplishments," said Dean Leonard M. Baynes. "She served with distinction, and is one of very few of our alums to have served on the Texas Supreme Court. We're very grateful to honor her with this lecture series and thank her for all that she does for the institution."
Future speakers in the Sondock lectureship include U.S. District Judge Eleanor Ross and Judge Gregg Costa of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.