New Chief Judge Shortlist Features Previously Excluded Liberal Judges

Hochul has a month to nominate one of the seven candidates to be New York’s next chief judge, after the state Senate rejected her first pick last month.

Sam Mellins   ·   March 24, 2023
Governor Kathy Hochul delivers remarks at the Court of Appeals on April 5, 2022. | Office of the Governor

JUST OVER A MONTH after the state Senate made history by rejecting Governor Kathy Hochul’s first pick to lead the state Court of Appeals, New York has a new shortlist for its next chief judge.

On Friday, the state Commission on Judicial Nomination sent Hochul a new list of seven candidates to fill the role, restarting the process that ended with her selection — and the Senate’s rejection — of Judge Hector LaSalle. Hochul must select her new nominee by April 23, at which point the nomination goes to the Senate for confirmation or rejection.

The new list includes three current Court of Appeals judges: acting chief Anthony Cannataro, Shirley Troutman, and Rowan Wilson. Cannataro and Corey Stoughton, of the Legal Aid Society, are the only two current candidates who appeared on the old list.

Troutman and Wilson represent two notable new additions: As New York Focus reported at the time, they both applied to appear on the previous list, but neither was included. Troutman is more liberal than the conservative former Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, and Wilson is one of the two most liberal judges currently on the court — along with Jenny Rivera, who also applied last time but has not appeared on either list.

“Maybe the commission heard what many people were saying, which is that it was really shameful to exclude Wilson and Troutman,” law professor and Court of Appeals expert Vincent Bonventre told New York Focus on Friday.

A successful nomination of either Troutman or Wilson would mark a new direction for the court, which since 2021 has been controlled by a conservative bloc that pushed New York law to the right on issues ranging from police power to workers rights. Since DiFiore resigned in August, the seven-member court has deadlocked 33 on numerous important cases, meaning that the new chief will often serve as a swing vote.

Liberals and progressives feared a return to the DiFiore era with the nomination of LaSalle, whom Hochul picked despite being warned by multiple senators and powerful labor unions that they would oppose his nomination. After a fierce campaign against him from labor unions, reproductive rights groups, legal academics, and Democratic and socialist activists, the Senate voted down his nomination 3920 — the first time the body has ever rejected a Court of Appeals nominee. Democrats cast all but one of the votes against LaSalle, in a stunning rebuke to Hochul from her own party.

Cannataro, who became acting chief last August after a controversial election in which DiFiore may have cast an illegal vote for him, is unlikely to be nominated. He angered many state senators when he sided with DiFiore and two other judges to throw out the legislative districts that Albany Democrats had drawn last April, allowing an upstate Republican judge to appoint an expert to draw new districts.

While the opponents to a potentially conservative chief judge successfully killed his nomination, LaSalle benefited from powerful supporters including US House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and Latinos for LaSalle, a group that featured influential Latino public figures like Latino Victory Fund chair Luis Miranda and former state Assemblymember Roberto Ramirez. Many of his strongest backers cited diversity as a reason for their support: LaSalle is Latino, and the court has never had a non-white chief.

Had she been selected, Rivera could have been the first Latina chief judge and satisfied senators’ desire for progressive leadership. Both Troutman and Wilson are Black, and the remaining candidates are white. The current list does not include any Latino candidates.

With three current Court of Appeals judges on the seven-person list, there’s a reasonable chance that the chief judge selection will trigger a new search — to fill their current spot on the court.

The list also includes the head judges of two of New York’s four state appeals courts: Elizabeth Garry, who heads the court that covers eastern upstate New York, and Gerald Whalen, who heads the court that covers western New York. Whalen may be an unlikely pick since he is in his late 60s, and New York judges must retire in the year they turn 70.

The final two candidates are private attorney Caitlin Halligan, who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, served as New York’s solicitor general, and was nominated for a federal judgeship by President Barack Obama, and civil rights attorney Corey Stoughton, who currently serves in a senior role at the Legal Aid Society.

Last October, Hochul told the Albany Times-Union that she wanted a chief judge who would be qualified to sit on the US Supreme Court.

“Supreme Court caliber, you’re talking about Halligan and Wilson,” Bonventre said, adding that he thinks all the candidates are qualified. “If Wilson were on the Supreme Court, he’d double the IQ.”

Sam Mellins is senior reporter at New York Focus, which he has been a part of since launch day. His reporting has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Intercept, THE CITY, and The Nation. 
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