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Hochul judicial pick Caitlin Halligan’s record reviewed at Senate committee hearing

Caitlin Halligan sitting at a desk. In the background, people look on as she answers questions.
Karen DeWitt
New York State Public Radio
Caitlin Halligan at Tuesday's State Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

The State Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing for the second time this week on a choice by Gov. Kathy Hochul to serve on the state’s highest court — but a threat of legal action could stall Caitlin Halligan’s confirmation process.

Tuesday’s hearing came one day after the Judiciary Committee voted to advance Hochul’s choice of Rowan Wilson to be the next chief judge of New York. Halligan is being considered to fill Wilson’s current slot on the court as an associate judge.

Halligan, a former New York State solicitor general and attorney in private practice, received a largely positive response from both Democratic and Republican senators.

Progressive groups, who backed Hochul’s nomination of Wilson for chief judge, have some reservations about Halligan, saying her record is mixed.

During her time at a corporate law firm, Halligan successfully defended Chevron against claims by human rights and environmental lawyer Steven Donziger. She also represented UPS when it was fighting laws that prohibited discrimination against pregnant people, and represented businesses that were seeking to avoid paying farmworkers for exposure to toxic chemicals.

Peter Martin, with the criminal justice advocacy group Center for Community Alternatives, said there’s another side to Halligan. Martin said Halligan’s pro bono work effectively represented tenants in reinforcing the constitutionality of New York City’s rent control laws. She also represented Amazon employees seeking better working conditions.

But Martin, whose group wants a change in the direction of a high court that has leaned conservative in recent years, said it’s difficult to tell from her record whether Halligan would help foster a shift.

“We just don’t know if Halligan will be a judge who will bring that form of change to the court,” Martin said.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Brad Hoylman-Sigal asked Halligan about her record defending both corporate and progressive clients.

“As an advocate, your client's views don't necessarily reflect your own,” Hoylman-Sigal said.

Halligan agreed, saying that in a number of cases where she represented a client and forcefully advocated for their side, she might have taken a different view of the outcome had she been sitting on the bench as a judge.

“But that's not the role of an advocate,” she said. “And so in whatever capacity I represented a client, I've done my best to bring to the court whatever arguments there are on that client's behalf.”

The Judiciary Committee did not vote Tuesday to advance Halligan’s name, though. Technically, she could not be considered an official nominee for the Court of Appeals until Wilson was confirmed as chief judge, creating another opening on the court.

Hoylman said in a statement that he intends to vote for Halligan when the vote is ultimately held.

The full Senate’s confirmation process could be delayed, though. Republicans, who are in the minority party in the Legislature, are considering a lawsuit.

Hochul picked both Halligan and Wilson’s names from a single list of nominees presented by the state’s Judicial Nomination Commission. But Senate GOP Leader Robert Ortt and several government watchdog groups said the state’s constitution requires that only one nominee be chosen from each list.

“We continue to review that option,” Ortt said.

He said he and his colleagues are still trying to determine who would have standing to bring legal action.

Ortt said the commission needs to come up with a new list of nominees to fill Wilson’s seat. The Legislature, at Hochul’s request, passed a law that allowed the governor to choose both names from the same list. But Ortt said that change can only be made through a constitutional amendment.

Senate Republicans say they still haven’t decided when, or if, to file a lawsuit.

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.