Historic investiture ceremony held for Hon. Rowan Wilson, New York’s first black chief judge

September 13, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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New York welcomed a historic turning point as Judge Rowan Wilson was celebrated for his ascension to chief judge of the state’s highest court, the New York Court of Appeals. The ceremony came months after his official swearing-in but added grandeur to this event.

“We are here to not just make history, but to start a new era, begin a new era for the state of New York,” said Gov. Kathy Hochul at the ceremony. “One that does reflect our values as a people. 

“And so, it is a great privilege for me to preside over, in my two years as governor, my third investiture, so I feel a little bit of responsibility for espousing a certain individual I’m looking for in terms of legal character, personal character, ability, but also to remind the rest of New York that we have a court that looks like the rest of New York.”

Chief Judge Rowan Wilson stands alongside Gov. Kathy Hochul, both radiating pride, during the historic investiture ceremony.

Though Wilson’s ascent marks him as the first Black chief judge in New York’s history, Governor Hochul was quick to clarify that his race was not the sole reason for his selection.

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“This is a milestone. But that is not why he is sitting here today,” Hochul said. “He has demonstrated through his years already on this court the intellect, the understanding, the ability to write in such a powerful way and to really make decisions that matter.”

Judge Wilson, who had previously served as an associate judge on the court since 2017, had faced obstacles in his journey. Governor Hochul’s first nominee, Hector LaSalle, saw his nomination quashed earlier this year. However, Judge Wilson enjoyed substantial support, securing his position with a 40-19 vote. His friendly stance on civil rights, labor and environmental issues, along with a notable dissent on a controversial decision regarding congressional maps, positioned him as a favorable choice for many.

An enthralled audience gathers in Albany to witness the historic investiture, with former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman prominently seated in the front row, fifth from the right.

Wilson, born on Sept. 3, 1960, in Pomona, California, grew up in Berkeley, where his educational pursuits led him to Harvard College for his undergraduate studies. He later completed his legal education at Harvard Law School in 1984.

Upon earning his law degree, Wilson embarked on his professional career as a law clerk under James R. Browning, the chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, a role he maintained for two years. 

In 1986, he joined the prominent law firm, Cravath, Swaine & Moore as an associate. By 1992, Wilson made history by becoming the first African-American partner at the firm. He continued in his capacity as a litigation partner until 2017, specializing in areas such as antitrust, intellectual property, securities fraud, and civil rights litigation. 

During his tenure at Cravath, Swaine & Moore, Wilson took on the responsibility of leading the firm’s pro bono practice and also represented the firm as a trustee at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. He also chaired the Neighborhood Defender Services of Harlem, which offers legal services to indigent residents of New York.

A moment of joy: Chief Judge Rowan Wilson, the first Black chief judge of New York’s highest court, beams during the celebratory ceremony.

Wilson was nominated to the position of an associate judge of the New York Court of Appeals by Governor Andrew Cuomo on January 15, 2017. This nomination received confirmation from the New York State Senate on February 6, 2017.

Addressing those in attendance at the investiture ceremony for his promotion to the head of the Court of Appeals, Chief Judge Wilson expressed gratitude and assured the executive branch and members of the state Legislature of his commitment to collaboration. 

“Checks and balances mean independent, not adversarious,” Wilson said. “My team and I look forward to working with you collaboratively to improve the lives of all New Yorkers.”

With Wilson’s promotion, Caitlin Halligan has stepped in as an associate judge in his stead.

Governor Hochul’s poignant remarks went on to touch the core of public service and the legacy of the court system in New York. She highlighted the state’s long history of championing rights, even when it stood against national decisions. Her tribute to Judge Wilson drew comparisons to influential judges of the past like Benjamin Cardozo.



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