With additional reporting by TANDY LAU, Amsterdam News Staff, Report for America Corps Member

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York’s Senate confirmed Rowan Wilson as the state’s first Black chief judge Tuesday, two months after lawmakers dealt Gov. Kathy Hochul a political defeat by rejecting her initial nominee for the top court post.

Wilson has been an associate judge of the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, since 2017. Hochul tapped him earlier this month to lead the seven-member high court and oversee the state’s judicial system. The confirmation vote caps months of conflict between Hochul and her fellow Democrats in control of the Senate over the direction of the court.

“Judge Wilson has proven himself to be one of the most thoughtful, well-written, and persuasive jurors in the nation, and in the history of the Court of Appeals,” state Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal, chair of the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee, said on the floor.
New York County Clerk Hon. Milton Tingling told the Amsterdam News he recalls first meeting Wilson after he joined the Court of Appeals. He says he was floored by his legal knowledge.

“The scholarship of his decisions is something that the court hadn’t seen for a while—his writings are pristine,” said Tingling. “My first relationship with him was just one of respect for his legal acumen and scholarship. Then, I met him socially. Here’s a gentleman on the Court of Appeals—the highest court in the state. He’s writing decisions that belong in law books and law schools. And you sit down talking to him like somebody you’ve known most of your life.”

Wilson’s nomination came after Hochul’s first choice, Hector LaSalle, faced a barrage of criticism from liberal senators and their allies, who criticized decisions he made as an appeals judge.

In an unprecedented move, the Senate rejected LaSalle in February. LaSalle would have been the first Latino to lead the high court.

Dr. Hazel Dukes told the Amsterdam News that while she also supported Hochul’s previous appointment, she was excited for Wilson’s confirmation.

“He has demonstrated in his work and in his thinking that he is absolutely [for] this time in the history of New York state and the country where we are debating and talking about how we look at the system to make sure that people are treated equally and fairly,” she said. “None of us want criminals in our community [and] all of us want to be safe…but then we must also realize there is more than just locking them up and throwing away the keys.”
Wilson, 62, is more palatable to liberals, who have praised the Harvard Law School graduate’s record on civil rights, labor, and environmental issues.

He notably dissented in the Court of Appeals’ ruling of People v. Tiger, standing against the majority decision that now serves as a significant roadblock for Black and brown New Yorkers seeking to overturn wrongful convictions.

Wilson also dissented in a top court ruling last year that rejected new congressional maps that had widely been seen as favoring Democrats.

That dissent has alarmed some Republicans because the Court of Appeals could possibly one day consider a Democrat-backed lawsuit seeking to compel the redrawing of New York’s congressional boundaries. The current maps helped the GOP regain control of the U.S. House last year.

Senate Republicans described Wilson as an “activist judge,” focusing their opposition on a recent decision he wrote overturning a rape conviction. Wilson cited the local prosecutor’s years-long delay in pursuing the case.

“That result, I think, is egregious. I think it’s a misapplication of the law,” said Sen. Anthony Palumbo, the ranking Republican on the committee.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said in her opening remarks that she was disappointed in the “tone and tenor” of her Republican colleagues and said the chamber “was better than that.” But she was intent on celebrating the landmark occasion.

“Let us get back to the good news,” she said. “We have officially confirmed the first African-American Judge to serve the state of New York as the Chief judge of the Appeals Court.”
Wilson watched the debate silently from a Senate gallery. He had no comment on the way out.

Wilson succeeds Judge Janet DiFiore, who resigned in August. His confirmation leaves a vacancy for an associate judge on the top court.

Hochul said she intends to nominate former state solicitor general Caitlin Halligan, who is currently a partner at a New York City-based law firm, to fill the associate judge vacancy.
Halligan answered questions from the Judiciary Committee earlier Tuesday, setting up an expedited confirmation process when Hochul formally makes the nomination.

Associated Press writer Maysoon Khan contributed. Khan is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Maysoon Khan on Twitter at @maysoonkahn.

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