Albany Agenda

Why did New York’s highest court overturn Harvey Weinstein’s conviction?

Unpacking the surprising decision from the liberal justices.

Harvey Weinstein appeared in New York City Criminal court in 2020.

Harvey Weinstein appeared in New York City Criminal court in 2020. Scott Heins/Getty Images

On Thursday, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein’s conviction on sexual assault charges should be overturned, undermining one of the most high-profile victories in the #MeToo movement. The decision surprised many observers, not least because it was the court’s newly-established liberal majority that voted in favor of Weinstein. For those unfamiliar with the Court of Appeals and the political fight over its ideological balance, here’s a quick explainer:

What is the Court of Appeals?

The seven-member Court of Appeals is the state’s highest court, a state-level analogue to the U.S. Supreme Court. Like the Supreme Court, it is composed of both liberal and a conservative factions. For much of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s tenure, the court was dominated by a four-member conservative majority led by then-Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, a former prosecutor.

After DiFiore resigned in 2022, Democrats pushed Gov. Kathy Hochul to nominate a reliably progressive judge to replace her and shift the balance of power on the court. Initially, she nominated Hector LaSalle, a former prosecutor whom many progressives deemed too conservative. A coalition of left-leaning groups mobilized to oppose LaSalle’s nomination, citing his rulings against criminal defendants and unions and in favor of anti-abortion groups. Hochul stuck by LaSalle to the bitter end, but the state Senate ultimately voted down his nomination – the first time in state history that had happened.

Hochul then nominated Associate Judge Rowan Wilson, who already served on the Court of Appeals and was known for his fierce dissents to conservative decisions, to become the next chief judge. His nomination sailed through the state Senate, though it was not entirely without controversy. The New York chapter of the National Organization of Women opposed Wilson’s nomination because Wilson voted to overturn a rape conviction.

To replace Wilson as associate judge, Hochul nominated former solicitor general Caitlin Halligan. By early 2023, the balance of power on the Court of Appeals had shifted – with four liberals (Wilson, Halligan and Associate Judges Jenny Rivera and Shirley Troutman) and three conservatives (Associate Judges Madeline Singas, Anthony Cannataro and Michael Garcia).

Which judges voted to overturn Weinstein’s conviction?

Both Halligan and Troutman recused themselves from the case for unknown reasons. Wilson selected two mid-level appellate judges, Betsy Barros and Christine Clark, to replace them for this case.

The decision was authored by Rivera and joined by Wilson, Barros and Clark. Singas wrote a dissent, which was joined by Garcia and Cannataro. Cannataro wrote his own dissenting opinion, which was joined by Singas and Garcia.

In effect, the liberal judges on the court voted to overturn Weinstein’s conviction, while the conservatives voted to uphold it.

Why did the liberal judges vote to overturn Weinstein’s conviction?

In her opinion, Rivera argued that Weinstein’s conviction must be overturned because his trial was fundamentally unfair. Specifically, Rivera accepted the argument from Weinstein’s attorneys that the judge overseeing the trial had committed “reversible error” by allowing testimony from witnesses who were not legally relevant to the case.

Weinstein has been accused of sexual assault or harassment by more than 80 women, but very few of those incidents were crimes committed in New York state whose statute of limitations had not already expired. When prosecutors in New York brought charges against Weinstein in 2018, they only formally charged him with assaulting two women. During the trial, though, prosecutors called a number of other women as witnesses who testified that Weinstein had assaulted them – even though he wasn’t on trial for those assaults.

A jury found Weinstein guilty and a judge sentenced him to 23 years in prison, but Weinstein appealed the verdict. He argued that the trial was unfair and the judge should not have allowed testimony from witnesses accusing him of crimes that he was not on trial for. An appellate court rejected that argument, but the Court of Appeals was more amenable.

The four liberal judges on the court agreed that the witnesses should not have been allowed to testify and prosecutors should not have been allowed to cross-examine Weinstein about their testimony. In her decision overturning Weinstein’s conviction, Rivera wrote: “Under our system of justice, the accused has a right to be held to account only for the crime charged and, thus, allegations of prior bad acts may not be admitted against them for the sole purpose of establishing their propensity for criminality…We conclude that the trial court erroneously admitted testimony of uncharged, alleged prior sexual acts against persons other than the complainants of the underlying crimes because that testimony served no material non-propensity purpose.”

Is Weinstein getting out of prison?

Since Weinstein’s 2020 conviction has been overturned, he will no longer have to serve out the rest of his 23-year sentence in New York state prison. But that doesn’t mean he’ll be free. In 2022, Weinstein was found guilty of rape and sexual assault in a separate trial in California and sentenced to 16 years in prison. He’ll still have to serve out that sentence in California state prison. Weinstein is currently appealing the California conviction.

What are the reactions to this decision?

Luis Miranda, a Democratic political consultant who strongly supported Hochul’s nomination of Hector LaSalle to be chief judge, used the Weinstein decision as an opportunity to criticize state Senate Democrats who rejected LaSalle in favor of Wilson. “Remember when a majority of Democratic NY State Senators rejected Judge LaSalle for not being progressive enough? Their ‘progressive’ pick was Judge Rowan Wilson. Well, this week Wilson let sexual-predator Harvey Weinstein go free. Go figure!” he wrote on X.

State Senate Republicans, who also supported LaSalle, voiced similar views. “Sadly, this is (the) New York that Senate Democrats were fighting for and this decision rests at their feet,” state Sen. Anthony Palumbo told the New York Post. Senate Democrats said that the problem was not the liberal judges’ interpretation of the law but rather the law itself. “We want to ensure that especially in crimes of sexual misconduct that survivors are given every opportunity to present their evidence in a court of law,” state Senate Judiciary Chair Brad Hoylman-Sigal, who helped lead the opposition to LaSalle, told the Post.

Democratic Assembly Member Amy Paulin introduced a bill last year that would amend the criminal procedure law to allow witnesses in sexual assault trials to testify that the defendant previously committed sexual assault. That bill is still in committee, but Paulin sent out a press release touting it following the Weinstein decision.