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Rowan Wilson Is Confirmed as New York’s Chief Judge – Originally Published by The New York Times

Judge Wilson, a prominent liberal jurist, will be the first Black judge to lead the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. Link to original article: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/18/nyregion/rowan-wilson-ny-chief-judge.html

Luis Ferré-Sadurní

By Luis Ferré-Sadurní

April 18, 2023

ALBANY, N.Y. — Judge Rowan Wilson, a liberal-leaning jurist, was confirmed as chief judge of New York State’s highest court on Tuesday, making him the first Black judge to hold the post at a time when state courts are playing a crucial role in deciding questions of fundamental rights.

Judge Wilson’s elevation from associate judge to chief judge of the Court of Appeals could open a new chapter for the court after the six-year tenure of Janet DiFiore, the previous chief judge, who wielded her influence to push the court to the right.

His confirmation by the State Senate in a 40-to-19 vote marked the end of a tumultuous quarrel that had divided ruling Democrats in Albany after the upper chamber rejected Gov. Kathy Hochul’s initial nominee two months ago, in an unprecedented rebuke by her own party.

In addition to deciding cases that reach the Court of Appeals, at times among the most influential courts in the country, the chief judge administers the state’s court system, with its 16,000 employees and $3 billion budget.

Judge Wilson’s ascension to the state’s most influential judicial post is the high point of a decades-long career of milestones.

In the 1990s, he became the first Black partner at one of the country’s most prestigious law firms. Since 2017, he has distinguished himself as a prominent liberal voice on the Court of Appeals, where he has helped expand the rights of workers and criminal defendants and written dozens of dissents against the court’s more conservative rulings.

His smooth confirmation process was an amicable resolution to a bitter clash between Ms. Hochul and Senate Democrats, who blocked her first nominee, Hector D. LaSalle, over concerns that he was too conservative.

Judge Wilson, 62, was a more amenable choice for Democrats, who are intent on changing the court’s political direction.

“Judge Wilson will bring honor to our court and will help lead our court in a new direction that will stand up for all New Yorkers,” State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the majority leader, said on the chamber floor, describing the court as “crucial in securing our most basic freedoms.”

Republicans cast Judge Wilson as too liberal, with State Senator Anthony H. Palumbo calling him “an activist judge acting in a way that is contrary to common sense and the law.”

The court could decide an appeal by Democrats challenging the state’s recently redrawn congressional lines, which helped Republicans recapture the House of Representatives last year. A court with a more solidly liberal majority could bolster Democrats’ efforts to reconfigure the maps in their favor.

Judge Wilson will fill a position that has remained empty since Ms. DiFiore’s August resignation.

To replace him as an associate judge on the court, whose seven members serve 14-year terms, Ms. Hochul nominated Caitlin Halligan, a private lawyer and former state solicitor general.

Ms. Halligan, who is seen as more moderate than Judge Wilson, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee during a three-hour hearing Tuesday. While both Democrats and Republicans praised her qualifications and showered her with deferential comments, her confirmation could face a hurdle.

Senate Republicans may sue over the constitutionality of the procedure Ms. Hochul used to nominate two candidates at once to the court. At issue is a law Ms. Hochul recently signed to speed up the process of filling a vacancy when an associate judge is elevated to chief judge.

Under that law, Ms. Hochul picked both Judge Wilson and Ms. Halligan from the same shortlist of chief judge candidates created by a special commission, avoiding a monthslong process to create a second list to fill the additional vacancy.

Government watchdogs argued the law excluded those who might not have applied for chief judge from being considered for the associate judge role.

On Tuesday, Senate Republicans said they were still weighing a lawsuit. Senate Democrats plan to hold a floor vote on Ms. Halligan on Wednesday.

Ms. Halligan’s résumé has impressed lawmakers on both sides: In addition to serving as the state’s solicitor general between 2001 and 2007, she was repeatedly nominated by President Barack Obama to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and she has argued six cases before the Supreme Court.

But she has not produced a substantial body of writings, and lawmakers have struggled to pin down her political leanings as they strive to predict how she would rule on important cases. Indeed, parts of her record may appear contradictory.

As solicitor general she worked on a seminal case against the Environmental Protection Agency under the George W. Bush administration, in which the Supreme Court ruled the E.P.A. could regulate greenhouse gases.

But as a private lawyer, she represented Chevron in litigation against the environmental and human rights lawyer Steven Donzinger, who won a $9.5 billion case against the company for polluting the Amazon before he was disbarred.

On Tuesday, Ms. Halligan said her clients’ views did not represent her own, encouraging lawmakers to judge her instead by her pro bono work defending tenants, workers and civil rights organizations.

“I have certainly not agreed with the positions of all of my clients, in the public or private sector,” she said, adding that her experience had enabled her “to see a wide range of perspectives.”

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