First Black Chief Justice Confirmed By NY State Senate

Following a 40-19 confirmation vote, Wilson will take on the position of Chief Judge after having served as Associate Judge for six years.
Following a 40-19 confirmation vote, Wilson will take on the position of Chief Judge after having served as Associate Judge for six years.

The Honorable Rowan D. Wilson was confirmed as New York State’s Chief Judge by the New York State Senate on April 18 after being nominated by Governor Kathy Hochul on April 10. Wilson is the first Black judge to serve as Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, replacing Janet DiFiore who served on the court for the past six years. 

Judge Wilson served as one of seven associate judges on the New York State Court of Appeals for six years prior to his nomination and confirmation. Graduating from Harvard Law School in 1984, Wilson worked primarily in private practice at Cravath, Swaine & Moore in New York City as an associate and later as the first Black partner. He was appointed to be an Associate Judge of the Court of Appeals in 2017, where he served until Hochul’s nomination earlier this month. 

With a record of liberal stances and rulings on many political issues, Judge Wilson’s confirmation indicates a new era for the court. He stated that “Protecting the rights of New Yorkers is my top priority, and I look forward to working with Governor Hochul and our partners throughout the judiciary system to manage our courts and deliver justice.”

Following the administration of DiFiore, who pushed the court more to the political right, Wilson is seen as an “amendable choice” as State Senate Democrats look to alter the court’s political direction. This, in turn, has caused Republicans to claim Wilson will make the court an activist – one “challenging common sense and law.” 

The Court of Appeals, the highest appellate court in New York State, was established by constitutional amendment in 1847 to rule on statewide principles framed by deciding lawsuits. The court focuses on more broad issues of law instead of individual disputes with very little jurisdictional limit. Therefore, the court is in a highly influential position; many critical decisions on abortion, labor rights and other divisive issues are currently being made and debated on the both federal and state levels. 

The Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, Gov. Hochul explained, “not only leads the State’s highest court, but is also responsible for managing the diverse and complex courts across the State.” Along with acting as chief of, at times, one of the most influential appellate courts in the country, Wilson will also administrate New York State’s court system. That includes 16,000 employees and a $3 billion budget that ranges across the state and covers a multitude of cases. 

Wilson’s confirmation follows the blocking of Hochul’s first nomination, Hector D. LaSalle. The first time the State Senate rejected a governor’s nomination, LaSalle was accused of having conservative stances. However, LaSalle argued that critics singled out cases that had pertained to procedural questions and were distorting his record to derail his nomination. New York State Senate Democrats eventually found LaSalle to be too conservative, causing a major rift in Hochul’s own party; Hochul, a moderate Democrat herself, was pitted against both the left wing of her party and the Senate at large. 

To fill Judge Wilson’s previous position on the Court of Appeals as Associate Judge, Hochul nominated Caitlin Halligan. Formerly a private lawyer and New York state solicitor general, Halligan is more politically moderate than Wilson. Halligan was confirmed after her nomination was deemed constitutional and both Senate Democrats and Republicans found her qualified, and began serving the 14-year term allocated for the six Associate Judges of the court.