Governor Kathy Hochul has announced her nominations for chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals and other high-level court positions from a shortlist of candidates. If confirmed, Judge Rowan D. Wilson would be the first Black person to be chief judge.
“New Yorkers deserve a strong, effective, and thoughtful leader, and I am proud to nominate Judge Wilson as Chief Judge,” Hochul said in a statement. “Judge Wilson’s sterling record of upholding justice and fairness makes him well-suited to lead the court at this critical time.”
The confirmation process is usually very streamlined. When a vacancy is announced, by law, the Senate has 120 days to produce a shortlist of members for the governor to choose from. Then there’s a waiting period of no more than 30 days for the governor to make their pick. Hochul made her selections on April 10, giving the Senate 30 days to schedule the confirmation hearings and vote.
Hochul’s first choice for the job of chief judge, Justice Hector LaSalle, was rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee during a confirmation hearing on January 18 in a vote of 10–9. This was the first time in state history that had happened, indicating a division between the newly elected governor and a pretty vocal contingent of senators. A coalition formed against LaSalle, based on a scope of cases that were called evidence of him being “anti-woman,” “anti-labor,” and harmful to communities of color. Hochul filed a lawsuit after the hearing to call for a full Senate vote on LaSalle’s nomination and still lost a vote of 39–20.
Wilson’s nomination, on the other hand, has been met with praises so far and significantly less controversy.
“Serving as Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals would be the honor of my career, and I am humbled by this nomination from Governor Hochul,” said Wilson in a statement. “Protecting the rights of New Yorkers is my top priority, and I look forward to working with Governor Hochul and our partners throughout the judiciary system to manage our courts and deliver justice.”
Wilson was born in Pomona, California, in 1960, and grew up in Berkeley, according to Hochul’s office. He attended Harvard and took the bar exam in 1985 in California and in New York in 1987. He served as a judicial law clerk and a lawyer until former Governor Andrew Cuomo nominated Wilson to be an associate judge of the Court of Appeals in 2017.
“I commend Governor Hochul on the selection of Judge Rowan D. Wilson to serve as Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals and congratulate Judge Wilson on this tremendous accomplishment,” said Attorney General Letitia James in a statement. “As the first Black Chief Judge of our state’s highest court, Judge Wilson will bring valuable perspective and years of experience to this most critical role.”
Hochul also nominated Caitlin J. Halligan to fill Wilson’s seat as associate judge and Judge Joseph Zayas as chief administrative judge. Halligan is a leading appellate attorney and has served as the first chief of the New York Attorney General’s Internet Bureau, NYS solicitor general from 2001 to 2007, and a lecturer at Harvard Law School.
Electeds, lawyers, and advocates alike approve of the nominations.
Wilson and Halligan are well-suited and “exemplary” based on their experience in the opinion of Appellate Litigator Brian Ginsberg, although he noted his belief that other members on the shortlist and LaSalle would have been qualified nominations as well. He worked in the solicitor general’s office, has argued cases presided over by Wilson, and has been following the selection process closely.
“As a practicing lawyer, as someone who represents clients not causes in the court of appeals, my overarching criterion is will the judges give my client a full and fair day in court,” said Ginsberg. “[That] means will they approach the case with an open mind, will they diligently prepare and read all the relevant materials that the parties give them and that they find through their research? Will they ask incisive questions? Will they issue or join at the end of the day a decision that reflects an application of the law to the facts without popularity or politics?”
Ginsberg suggested that the confirmation process is likely to move much more quickly this time around. Technically, there’s no law that the state has to confirm a chief judge within a certain amount of time. If Wilson is rejected, said Ginsberg, the cycle just starts over again until someone is found. Ginsberg said that the position being left vacant so long has definitely strained the court system.
Hochul said she’s nominating Halligan as well to “ensure the Court continues to function effectively” amid a “clogged” court system that’s been backed up since the pandemic.
Confirming two candidates at once is also an unprecedented move in the state’s history, and Hochul proposed a bill to do that.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Brad Hoylman believes the confirmation could happen as early as next week, and will make for a “smooth process.” He said he’s not going to publicly state his vote as he did previously with LaSalle’s nomination before the hearing.
“My colleagues in the Senate have already confirmed Judge Wilson, so we’re familiar with him and his record. We know about his background and qualifications, and since we confirmed him, I think many have been impressed with his opinions, as well as dissents,” said Hoylman.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said in a statement that the Senate takes the role of filling these positions very seriously. She looks forward to the hearings, considering Wilson’s “distinguished” record and Halligan’s “impressive legal résumé and a strong legal mind.”
Similarly, Center for Community Alternatives (CCA) applauded the Wilson nomination. CCA Director of Judicial Accountability Peter Martin said that Wilson’s opinions have defended and expanded the rights of workers, wrongfully convicted people, workplace injury victims, and victims of gun violence.
“Since last summer, we have called for a nominee who has demonstrated a commitment to safeguarding the rights of New Yorkers and protecting the most vulnerable,” said Martin. “As an associate judge on the Court of Appeals for the last six years, Judge Wilson has distinguished himself as a tireless champion of marginalized people. ”
Martin added that Halligan’s nomination “offers less to celebrate.” He acknowledged that Halligan has represented plenty of progressive clients, but said she is still unpredictable. “Her representation, instead, of a prosecutor’s office and of major corporations in disputes against their employees and others raises concerns,” said Martin. He advised that her record should be watched closely.
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about politics for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.