Paul Feinman, Gay Judicial Trailblazer, Dies at 61

Out gay Judge Paul Feinman passed away a week after he retired.
Paul Feinman

Leading LGBTQ legal advocates and others in the legal world reacted with shocked dismay on March 31 to the news that Court of Appeals Judge Paul Feinman, who just a week earlier abruptly resigned as the first out LGBTQ member of New York State’s highest court, has died.

Feinman, 61 and a New York City resident, was appointed to the Court of Appeals by Governor Andrew Cuomo in June 2017. Less than five years earlier, Cuomo had named him as the first out gay man to serve on the state’s intermediate Appellate Division, with a seat on the Manhattan-based First Judicial Department. In 2009, then-Governor David Paterson appointed Rosalyn Richter and Elizabeth A. Garry, both out lesbians, to the Appellate Division.

No cause of death was announced, but the state’s chief judge, Janet DiFiore, in announcing Feinman’s death, indicated that he had for some time suffered from an illness that had “progressed,” but noted “his productivity and the quality of his writings and contributions never suffered.” During hearings on his nomination to the Court of Appeals in 2017, Feinman said he had been treated for leukemia in 2015 but had recovered following chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant.

Feinman announced his retirement, effective immediately, on March 23.

In a tweet issued immediately after news of Feinman’s death was announced, the LGBT Bar Association of Greater New York wrote, “We are heartbroken to learn that our friend, NY Court of Appeals Judge Paul Feinman has passed. Not only did Judge Feinman make history with his appointment to NY’s highest court, he also broke down barriers and inspired LGBTQ people.”

Eric Lesh, that group’s executive director, tweeted, “This terrible news. Judge Feinman was such a brilliant and caring man. The best there is. May he Rest In Peace. He has changed the lives of so many.”

Also on Twitter, the Richard C. Failla LGBTQ Commission, which promotes equal participation and access throughout the state’s court system for LGBTQ people, wrote that it “is absolutely devastated and heartbroken about the tragic news today of our dear friend Judge Paul Feinman’s untimely passing. We will be creating an annual award named after him to remember his trailblazing legacy for the LGBTQ community.”

The State Bar Association reacted, writing, “Judge Feinman was a bright, experienced, and knowledgeable jurist who made an extraordinary impact on the Court of Appeals and the law of our state. He was also a kind and gentle man who was loved by many.”

Out gay Manhattan State Senator Brad Hoylman, chair of the Judiciary Committee, tweeted, “I knew Judge Feinman for over 2 decades. He worked his way up from Civil Court to became the first gay man judge on NY’s highest court. His death is a huge loss for the LGBTQ community & everyone who cares about the fair administration of justice.”

When Feinman announced his retirement last week, Kristen Browde, the co-chair of the National TransgenderBar Association and a past president of the LGBT Bar Association, told, “This is horrible news on so many levels,” noting that the Court of Appeals’ jurisprudence had changed after he joined the bench and brought a deeper understanding of LGBTQ issues.

Feinman was first elected to the New York City’s Civil Court in 1996 and reelected in 2006. In 2007, he was elected to a state Supreme Court judgeship. Previously, he was a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society and a court attorney for a State Supreme Court judge.

Feinman earned his bachelor’s degree from Columbia University in 1981 and a J.D. degree from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1985.

Feinman was a former president of the Lesbian and Gay Law Association of Greater New York and also a member of the Jewish Lawyers Guild and the New York Women’s Bar Association. He earlier also served as president of the International Association of LGBT Judges.

When Feinman was named to the Appellate Division in 2012, he told Gay City News, “I am grateful to the governor for giving me this opportunity to serve the public of the Empire State in this new way.”

In naming him to the state’s highest bench in 2017, Cuomo said, “Justice Feinman will be an exceptional addition to New York’s highest court. He is a talented jurist who has dedicated his career to public service and standing up for a fairer and more just New York.”

At that time, Matthew Skinner, then executive director of New York’s LGBT Bar Association and now head of the Failla LGBTQ Commission, said, “It’s just an absolutely terrific day for the LGBT legal community in New York. It’s a day that has been long in coming… This doesn’t guarantee any outcomes, but we’re relieved to finally have a seat at the table.”

The need for an LGBTQ jurist on the Court of Appeals was particularly evident in 2006, when that court ruled against equal marriage rights in a 4-2 decision. It would be five years before marriage equality became a reality in New York State. 

In her statement announcing Feinman’s death, Chief Judge DiFiore described him as “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. His scholarly, well-written opinions reflect a deep knowledge of the law balanced with a generous humanity and commitment to justice… And no one could want for a warmer or more caring colleague than Paul Feinman. Throughout his career, Judge Feinman was a tireless and resolute champion of LGBTQ rights, a trailblazing pioneer for LGBTQ lawyers and judges, and an incredibly dedicated mentor who inspired countless judges, attorneys, and law students.”

Paul Feinman is survived by his husband, Robert Ostergaard, and will be commemorated in a private funeral service.

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