Rowan Wilson confirmed as first Black chief judge of the Court of Appeals

The state Senate voted 40-19 to confirm Gov. Kathy Hochul’s most recent chief judge nominee.

Screenshot/NYS Senate

Screenshot/NYS Senate

After months of uncertainty around who would lead the state's highest court, on Tuesday the state Senate voted 40-19 to confirm Rowan Wilson to lead the Court of Appeals. In a party-line vote, the chamber made history by electing Wilson as the first Black chief judge in New York history. The full Senate vote came one day after the state Senate Judiciary Committee held a three-hour hearing on Wilson and then voted 14-4 to advance his nomination to the full Senate. 

Gov. Kathy Hochul announced her nomination of Wilson to helm the state’s highest court several weeks after the failed nomination of her first chief judge pick, Hector LaSalle – whom the Senate voted to reject earlier this year. Unlike LaSalle, Wilson had the support of most Senate Democrats and his confirmation went fairly smoothly. State Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal, chair of the Judiciary Committee, underscored his confidence in Wilson leading the court in an address on the Senate floor. “New Yorkers can be assured that with Judge Wilson at the helm, our judiciary will have their best interests at heart … that he will act with integrity and lead the nation and thoughtful and intelligent development of the law,” he said.

The governor applauded Wilson’s confirmation in a press release immediately following the vote, calling him a qualified jurist with a keen sense of fairness and a deep commitment to justice. “Throughout his tenure on the bench, he has proven himself to be a thoughtful leader who recognizes the power of the judiciary to impact the lives of all New Yorkers,” Hochul wrote.

One sticking point of the full Senate vote was Wilson’s majority opinion in People v. Regan – a case in which the Court of Appeals ruled 4-2 last month to vacate the conviction of someone convicted of rape, due to the prosecution’s mishandling of the case. Several advocates for sexual assault victims and Republican lawmakers have condemned Wilson’s ruling in the Regan case and suggested that it should disqualify him from being chief judge. 

State Sen. Jessica Ramos, who voted to confirm Wilson, criticized the Republicans’ “false sense of outrage” over Wilson’s opinion in Regan. In a powerful speech, she publicly identified herself for the first time as a rape survivor. “I want my rapist to see justice, but due process is justice,” she said. “And it's very important that we respect the procedures that we've actually outlined in our Constitution,” she said.

Republican lawmakers were largely opposed to Wilson’s confirmation and several accused Wilson of legislating from the bench. Suffolk County state Sen. Anthony Palumbo – a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who voted against advancing Wilson for a full Senate vote – asserted the judge had acted “outside the boundaries” of the duties of a judge. “(Wilson) will be the new creator of the law in this state, however, he sees fit,” Palumbo said.

With Wilson assuming the chief judge position, his old associate judge seat on the Court of Appeals will become vacant. Hochul has already announced her intention to pick former state solicitor general Caitlin Halligan to replace Wilson as an associate judge,  although Republicans are considering a lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of Halligan’s nomination. The state Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on Halligan earlier on Tuesday – though the committee was not able to vote on her until Wilson was formally confirmed. The Judiciary Committee is expected to hold a vote on Wednesday to advance Halligan’s nomination to the full Senate.