Rowan Wilson becomes NY’s first Black Chief Judge in historic confirmation

April 20, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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In a historic vote on Tuesday, the New York State Senate confirmed Rowan Wilson as the new chief judge of the Court of Appeals in a 40-19 vote.

This monumental confirmation marks Wilson as the first Black chief judge in New York’s history, breaking racial barriers and ushering in a new era of diversity, equity, and inclusion for the state’s judiciary.

The confirmation comes after months of political infighting and the unprecedented rejection of Gov. Hochul’s initial choice, Hector LaSalle, who was dismissed by fellow Democrats as they viewed him as too conservative for the post.

Justice Wilson served as an associate justice on the state’s top bench for six years and was a partner at Cravath, Swaine & Moore for 25 years. Wilson also spent 21 years as the chairman of the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, which provides legal services to the Harlem community.

Wilson’s confirmation faced pushback from several women’s organizations and advocates due to a majority opinion he penned last month in a controversial rape conviction case. The Court of Appeals overturned the conviction in a 4-2 decision, arguing that the prosecution violated the rights of the accused by not obtaining a DNA sample or indicting him for years after the incident. Despite these concerns, Democrats supported Wilson’s nomination after he defended his position on the issue during a three-hour confirmation hearing held on Monday.

“Since August, we have called for a Chief Judge who has demonstrated commitment to using the law to protect vulnerable New Yorkers, including tenants facing evictions, incarcerated people, and workers attempting to unionize,” said Peter Martin, Director of Judicial Accountability at Center for Community Alternatives. “Hon. Rowan D. Wilson’s confirmation has given New Yorkers exactly that kind of Chief Judge.

“As an Associate Judge on the Court of Appeals for the last six years, Judge Wilson has distinguished himself as a champion of marginalized people, and New Yorkers across the state will benefit from his leadership of the court system,” Martin continued. “Together, we achieved this victory by building a powerful coalition and holding the line against an initial Chief Judge nominee who fell short of what our state deserves.”

In response to the confirmation, The Legal Aid Society issued a statement highlighting the historic significance of Judge Rowan Wilson’s appointment.

“The confirmation of Judge Rowan D. Wilson as the first Black Chief Judge of New York is a historic moment for the state. His confirmation marks a significant step in breaking down the systemic barriers that continue to stand in the way of progress, and we applaud the members of the New York State Senate who voted to help usher in this new era of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the State’s highest court,” said the statement by The Legal Aid Society.

“The lack of diversity in judicial appointments has undoubtedly contributed to the inequality in our legal system. It is only through diversifying our court system that we can begin to unravel these implicit biases that negatively impact millions of Black and Latinx New Yorkers moving through the state court system,” the statement continued. “Judge Wilson is thoughtful and intelligent, and we celebrate the new and long overdue perspective he will bring to the position of Chief Judge.”

As Wilson assumes the chief judge position, his previous associate judge seat on the Court of Appeals will become vacant. Gov. Hochul has already announced her intention to nominate former state solicitor general Caitlin Halligan to replace Wilson as an associate judge.

The possibility of former State Solicitor General Halligan joining the State’s highest court is uncertain due to a potential lawsuit from Senate Republicans. This legal challenge could disrupt an already controversial process, which some good governance groups consider unconstitutional, involving collaboration between the governor’s office and Senate Democrats.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Halligan’s legal experience was widely commended by both parties, although the committee did not vote on her nomination. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brad Hoylman. And Halligan also served as the state’s solicitor general, arguing cases before the Court of Appeals.

Halligan was nominated by then-President Barack Obama to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, although her nomination was blocked by Republicans in the U.S. Senate. She also has been a finalist for the Court of Appeals six times.

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