Hochul Nominates Liberal Rowan Wilson for Chief Judge

As the governor negotiates the state budget with a legislature that rejected her last chief judge pick, she has selected a sitting liberal to lead the Court of Appeals.

Sam Mellins   ·   April 10, 2023
Judge Rowan Wilson at a talk celebrating Columbia Law School’s alumni of color. | Columbia Law School

Update: April 18, 2023 — On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed Rowan Wilson as the next Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals.

ROWAN WILSON, a liberal judge currently serving on the Court of Appeals, is Governor Kathy Hochul’s pick to be New York’s next chief judge. Announced Monday, Wilson’s candidacy will go next to a hearing and confirmation vote from the state Senate. If the Senate votes in his favor, he will become the first Black chief judge of the Court of Appeals, New York's top state court.

“I am proud to nominate Judge Wilson as Chief Judge, Hochul said in a statement. Judge Wilsons sterling record of upholding justice and fairness makes him well-suited to lead the court at this critical time.

Wilson’s confirmation would likely mark a dramatic departure from the court’s conservative recent past. The seven-member court has been operating with just six judges since August, when former Chief Judge Janet DiFiore resigned amid an ethics investigation. The six judges have split evenly in numerous cases since then.

Also on Monday, Hochul announced her intention to nominate Caitlin Halligan, a private attorney who clerked for former Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and served as New York state’s solicitor general, as Wilson’s replacement on the Court of Appeals. She will likely cast the swing vote in numerous cases, if confirmed.

If confirmed as chief judge, Wilson will wield significant power to steer the political direction of the court — and New York’s court system as a whole. When DiFiore was chief, she used that power to push the court in a conservative direction, issuing slews of rulings making New York law friendlier to police, prosecutors, and large corporations.

Wilson’s nomination must be approved by the state Senate, which rejected Hochul’s previous nominee, Judge Hector LaSalle, over concerns that he was too conservative on issues such as abortion access and criminal justice. Facing fierce opposition from numerous senators, labor unions, and legal activists, LaSalle was the first Court of Appeals nominee ever rejected by the Senate.

Wilson likely has a far easier path to confirmation, having received immediate support from key Senate Democrats.

“He is exactly the type of person who can restore the integrity and reputation of the Court of Appeals after the damaging tenure of the previous administration,” Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, a Democrat, said in a statement.

Before he joined the Court of Appeals in 2017, Wilson spent 30 years working at the elite law firm Cravath, Swaine, & Moore. He has since emerged as one of the court’s most liberal voices, voting in favor of criminal defendants far more often than most of his peers. Wilson frequently voted against the conservative rulings of DiFiore and her allies, in lengthy dissents laying out a liberal vision of New York law focused on protecting the rights of criminal defendants and workers.

As the court became more conservative, Wilson increasingly found himself in dissent. His dissenting opinions often delve into the law at great length, earning him a reputation as one of the most scholarly and thoughtful members of the court. They have also frequently contained strong objections to what he perceived as unjust decisions by the majority.

In one dissent, Wilson objected to the majority’s ruling denying a construction worker who had been permanently disabled by a workplace accident the right to sue the Port Authority, which owns the property where the accident occurred. He accused the majority of moving New York state “toward the worker protections offered by Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure,” the Egyptian Pharaohs who oversaw the building of the pyramids.

Since DiFiore’s resignation in August 2022, Wilson appears to be reasserting himself as a leading voice on the court. In the seven months that the court has met since DiFiore resigned, Wilson has authored six opinions — more than the number he wrote in the entire year before DiFiore’s resignation.

Though the term length for chief judge is officially 14 years, Wilson will likely not serve a full term. New York law generally requires judges to retire at the end of the year they turn 70, which is 2030 for Wilson. Replacements can be nominated before a judge leaves, so Hochul may have another chance to select a chief judge this decade.

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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