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Rowan Wilson confirmed as New York's first African American chief judge

Judge Rowan D. Wilson.
New York State Court
Judge Rowan D. Wilson.

Gov. Kathy Hochul’s choice for the next chief judge, Rowan Wilson, was confirmed 40-19 by the State Senate on Tuesday.

Wilson becomes the first African-American chief judge. But the confirmation was not without some controversy over Wilson’s ruling in a rape case.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who is both the first woman and first African-American woman to lead the Senate, said the confirmation of Wilson “shatters another barrier.”

“We are officially confirming the first Black judge to serve the state of New York as the chief judge,” Stewart-Cousins said.

Wilson, who has served for six years as an associate judge on the state’ s highest court, was praised by Senate Democrats for being a thoughtful judge who will turn the direction of the court away from a conservative trend in recent years under former Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, who resigned last summer.

Stewart-Cousins said choosing a judge to lead New York’s court system is more important than ever in the wake of a conservative U.S. Supreme Court, which has overturned key rights in recent months, including the right to choose an abortion and voting rights.

“New York must lead the way against radical rulings and reversals,” the Senate leader said.

But Wilson was slammed by Republicans, who are in the minority party in the Senate, for being what they called an “activist” judge who favors criminal defendants over crime victims.

Republican senators particularly criticized a decision that Wilson issued a month ago, in People v. Regan. Wilson ruled that a convicted rapist could be released from prison after he determined that prosecutors had been too slow to obtain a DNA sample from the man, Andrew Regan, in pretrial proceedings.

Sen. Dan Stec, a Republican from the North Country, said the incident happened in his district, and one of his constituents was the victim in the case.

“What kind of message are we sending the women of this state when you’re going to elevate someone that would let a rapist off,” Stec said. “That’s the best we can come up with? We can do much better.”

Sen. Jessica Ramos, a Democrat, revealed in her remarks that she herself is a rape survivor. She told the Republican senators that they don’t speak for her, and she accused them of using the issue to create “political theater.”

Judge Wilson, sitting at a desk.
Karen DeWitt
New York State Public Radio
Gov. Kathy Hochul's second pick for top judge, Rowan Wilson, at his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Monday, April 17, 2023.

“I want my rapist to see justice, but due process is justice,” Ramos said. “And it’s very important that we respect the procedures that we have actually outlined in our constitution. And we respect everyone’s right to due process.”

Ramos voted yes.

Wilson was Hochul’s second nominee for chief judge. The governor’s first choice, Hector LaSalle, was rejected by Senate Democrats, who believed he was too conservative to lead the court.

In a statement, Hochul called Wilson a “highly qualified jurist with a keen sense of fairness and a deep commitment to justice.”

She said she’s “confident” that he will use his wealth of experience and his “fair-minded approach” to guide the state’s courts.

The governor has chosen Caitlin Halligan to replace Wilson on the high court. Halligan, a former state solicitor general now in private practice, testified Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The committee is now poised to send her name to the full Senate for a vote, where she is expected to also be approved.

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.