A New Liberal Era for New York’s Highest Court?

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The confirmations of Rowan Wilson and Caitlin Halligan may reverse the Court of Appeals’ rightward trend.

Sam Mellins   ·   April 19, 2023

At long last, New York’s highest court is fully staffed. On Wednesday afternoon, the state Senate confirmed attorney and former US Supreme Court clerk Caitlin Halligan as an associate judge of the Court of Appeals, the state’s top court, by a vote of 47 to 12. Halligan filled the vacancy created Tuesday, when the Senate elevated sitting judge Rowan Wilson to chief judge, closing a nearly eight-month void left when former chief Janet DiFiore resigned in August.

The confirmations could mark a dramatic shift for the Court of Appeals. The court took a sharp turn to the right under DiFiore, an appointee and close ally of former Governor Andrew Cuomo, and it appears to have deadlocked three to three on several cases since she resigned. Now with a full slate, the court will revisit those cases and consider other high-profile matters on the docket, including a lawsuit by Democrats challenging New York’s redrawn congressional district lines.

Wilson, who was also a Cuomo appointee, is one of the two most liberal judges on the court and is now the first Black chief judge in New York history. As chief, he is expected to push the body to the left.

Less is known about the political leanings of Halligan, who has never served as a judge. During her hearing before the state Senate Judiciary Committee, legislators grilled her about her work representing gas giant Chevron and other corporate clients. She urged them to focus on her government and pro bono work, where she has advocated for environmental regulations, rent-controlled tenants, and criminal defendants. Halligan also clerked for liberal Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and was nominated for federal judgeships multiple times by former President Barack Obama but was blocked by Senate Republicans.

Those nominations are “a pretty darn good sign that Obama, or those who do the vetting for him, were confident that she was a liberal,” said Court of Appeals expert and Albany Law School professor Vincent Bonventre.

Since Wilson was already on the court, his elevation to chief judge doesn’t change its political balance. But Halligan’s vote could make the difference when the court rehears its deadlocked cases. She could also be a swing vote in upcoming cases, like the lawsuit over congressional district lines, or a challenge to New York City’s property tax system, which disproportionately taxes outer borough homeowners.

Halligan isn’t the only potential swing vote on the court. Currently, the court has two committed liberals — Wilson and Judge Jenny Rivera — and two conservatives — Judges Michael Garcia and Madeline Singas. The remaining two judges are less predictable. Judge Anthony Cannataro, a Cuomo appointee, voted with DiFiore in every single case they heard together. But since DiFiore left the court, he has voted with the liberal judges in multiple divided cases. Judge Shirley Troutman, a Hochul appointee, has more often sided with the conservative judges, but also joined the liberals in numerous cases.

At Halligan’s hearing, some senators weren’t convinced of her liberal bona fides. “I know of many lawyers that would have declined these kinds of cases,” Senator John Liu said at the hearing. “I feel like there could have been some choices.” But the committee still approved her nomination, clearing the path for her confirmation shortly afterwards.

The two confirmations ended a political conflict over the chief judge vacancy that has dominated Albany for much of the past year and came to a head in February, when Senate Democrats voted down Judge Hector LaSalle over concerns that he was too conservative. The 39–20 rejection of Hochul’s first chief judge nominee, with all but one “no” vote coming from Democrats, was an unprecedented rebuke of a sitting governor by her own party. The Senate had never before rejected a nominee to the Court of Appeals.

Progressive Senators and activists framed LaSalle’s defeat and Wilson’s confirmation as major victories, having spent months pushing for a liberal replacement for DiFiore. In a statement, Peter Martin, an organizer at the nonprofit Center for Community Alternatives who led the campaign against LaSalle, called Wilson “a champion of marginalized people.”

In addition to heading the Court of Appeals, the chief judge is head administrator of the state’s 16,000-employee court system.

At their hearings, Halligan and Wilson made it clear that they see eye to eye on at least one issue: the Court of Appeals should hear more cases. As chief, DiFiore actively sought to shrink the court’s docket, urging lower court judges to send fewer cases to the Court of Appeals. At his Judiciary Committee hearing Monday, Wilson said he has a “fundamentally different view,” from DiFiore, and would seek to grow the number of cases the court hears and allow lower court judges more freedom to send cases to the Court of Appeals.

At her own hearing, Halligan agreed. “I do share Judge Wilson’s view that expanding the docket would be a big help,” she told the judiciary committee. Since individual judges play a large role in determining which cases reach the Court of Appeals, Halligan’s and Wilson’s positions could have immediate effect in growing the court’s caseload.

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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