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Hochul's second attempt to choose a chief judge is also causing some controversy

state capitol building
CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons
The eastern side of the New York state Capitol in Albany, NY.

Gov. Kathy Hochul this week chose a new nominee to be the next chief judge for New York, and there’s already controversy.

This time, though, the issue is not whether the Senate will reject her choice to lead the Court of Appeals.

After Hochul’s first pick, Hector LaSalle, was rejected by a Senate committee and voted down in a full floor vote earlier this year, the governor requested a new list of names from the state’s Commission on Judicial Nomination.

This time, she chose Rowan Wilson, an associate judge on the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. Wilson is described by progressive groups as a champion of marginalized people in society. At his former law firm, he took over a pro bono case that for 40 years has fought inequality in hiring practices in the city of Birmingham, Alabama.

Peter Martin, director of judicial accountability for the criminal justice group Center for Community Alternatives, opposed Hochul’s selection of LaSalle. But his group backs Wilson, who he said will be a “phenomenal” chief judge.

“We came to our determination more so based on what he's been like as a judge for the last six years, where his record has been quite consistent, really admirable and impressive,” Martin said. “Especially because it's often been in opposition to the majority of the court in these recent years.”

Wilson often writes dissenting opinions on an increasingly conservative court. That includes a dissent on the high court’s rejection of congressional district lines drawn by Democrats. The decision led to a special master redrawing the lines, and in the 2022 elections, Republicans flipped four seats.

Martin sees Wilson’s determination to stand up for his beliefs as a strength.

“He's dissented many times, which shows both what he believes and how firmly he believes that, that he's willing to write dissents when necessary,” he said.

Wilson also has support of labor unions, who opposed LaSalle.

And unlike during LaSalle’s nomination, no Senate Democrats have come out in opposition to Wilson.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Brad Hoylman-Sigal said while he won’t say in advance how he might vote, he said he’s already “impressed” with Wilson’s record.

“We've confirmed Judge Wilson once already. I think he's obviously a strong candidate, based on that alone,” Hoylman-Sigal said. “We're going to review his record closely. But he's got a long record, both on the court and in the private sector as a partner at one of New York's largest law firms.”

While there may be more harmony with Hochul’s choice this time around, her decision to pick two names from the commission’s list is sparking some controversy.

She also chose Caitlin Halligan, a former prosecutor and New York state solicitor general who is now in private practice, to replace Wilson as associate judge on the court.

Under the rules, the governor is allowed to pick just one name from each list of nominees. But the Legislature, at Hochul’s request, passed a law in late March that allowed her to choose two names.

Government watchdog groups and Republicans, who are in the minority party in the Legislature, say that could violate the state’s constitution.

“The law … I do believe, in talking to some attorneys, is unconstitutional,” said Senate GOP Leader Robert Ortt, speaking before Hochul announced her choices.

He also said there are other groups who might also be considering a lawsuit.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said that perhaps the nomination commission should be eliminated altogether. It was created in the 1970s as a reform from the previous system and was intended to increase transparency and separate politics from the appointments.

But Senate Democrats have not always been happy with the commission’s lists.

“Having a group of people submit a limited number of people every time you are looking to fill a vacancy is no longer something we would like,” Stewart-Cousins said.

Stewart-Cousins said the governor should be able to nominate anyone for the state’s high court. She said it’s then up to the Senate to thoroughly vet that candidate through public hearings.

Any change to the process would require an amendment to the state's constitution and could not take effect until at least late 2025.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.