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Why NYS Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Hoylman-Sigal backed Wilson's chief judge nomination

Judge Rowan Wilson
New York state courts
NYS Courts
Judge Rowan Wilson

Governor Kathy Hochul’s second pick to become New York’s next chief judge cleared a key hurdle Monday when the state Senate Judiciary Committee approved his nomination. It came about two months after the committee and then the full state Senate rejected Hector LaSalle’s nomination. Rowan Wilson was confirmed by the Senate Tuesday evening, becoming the state’s first Black Court of Appeals Chief Judge. Democratic Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal of the 47th district chairs the Judiciary Committee.

You voted yes on the nomination. How come?

Because I think Judge Wilson has shown over the last six years that he is fair-minded. He's an intellect on the court, and he has the support of his colleagues. He's exactly the kind of chief judge we need to bring the court together and move forward, turning the page on the conservative majority that existed previous.

What made this process different from the one in February?

I think, in this instance, for starters, Judge Wilson had a record on the Court of Appeals. Judge Wilson had been vetted by this very Judiciary Committee and the full Senate, where he received unanimous approval. In addition to that, Judge Wilson's nomination is historic. He'd be the first black chief judge in New York State's history. He also has a wealth of experience in the private sector, where he was the first black partner at Cravath, one of the world's most leading law firms.

What do you make of the attention that was paid during the hearing on Monday to his role in certain cases especially with regard to sexual assault? Opponents of his and his nomination did make a big deal out of that on Monday.

I think the judge's response was appropriate and thoughtful. The judge noted that it is difficult when cases like this come before courts, but they are charged making those hard decisions, especially in defense of the broader goals of our Constitution and due process rights. He also noted that this was of course, a tragedy for the victim and her family, which has to be acknowledged. The judge has written extensively on victims' rights and noted that he has supported law enforcement and district attorneys' offices in their efforts to combat domestic violence.

The judge said in his comments that he, in so many words, thinks that the New York State judicial system and specifically, the job he's running for leading the Court of Appeals, needs to stand as a progressive bulwark at a time when the Supreme Court of the United States has lurched to the right. Do you agree with that? Is that the role of the court?

Well, it's certainly of concern when our federal courts, including the United States Supreme Court, begin to chip away at rights that we have considered fundamental. One of them being of course, access to abortion, the other being the concerns around gun safety, of course the environment, employment law, tenants rights, and housing. These are all issues that could conceivably come to the court of appeals at some juncture in the near future, especially given the fact that our federal courts are kicking a lot of these matters back to states to decide. So I do agree with Judge Wilson's assessment that state courts are more important than ever. And consequently, the chief judge may just be the most important position in New York at the moment.

Let me ask one more question, a bigger picture question. The Senate leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, said a few days ago that it might be time to scrap this particular process under which a nominating commission presents to the governor a list of nominees for these jobs, and then she picks from one of seven and then your committee takes up the nomination. Having gone through this a couple of times in the last couple of months, do you think it is time for a new way of picking a chief judge?

It certainly deserves examination. Given the convoluted and opaque nature of the commission on judicial nomination, any major changes would have to be made through a constitutional amendment, which would require two successive legislatures to approve and a vote by the people of New York. That could take some time. There are some measures we can take in the near-term through statutory changes to make the commission more transparent, and hopefully accountable to elected officials and the people of New York. We're looking at those now.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.