Court of Appeals Back to a Full Bench Following Two Confirmations

Legislative Gazette photo by Gabby Gagliano
Caitlin Halligan responds to questioning by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee prior to her confirmation by the Senate to serve on the New York State Court of Appeals.

History was made in New York State’s Court of Appeals on Tuesday, April 18; Rowan Wilson – former associate judge – was chosen in a 40-19 vote to be the first person of color to serve as chief judge on the state’s highest court. 

Taking his spot as associate will be former state Solicitor General Caitlin Halligan, a lecturer at Harvard Law School and one of the nation’s leading appellate litigation lawyers. 

“Judge Rowan Wilson is a highly qualified jurist with a keen sense of fairness and a deep commitment to justice,” said Gov. Kathy Hochul in a press release made after Judge Wilson’s approval. “I congratulate Judge Wilson on his confirmation and look forward to working closely with him to elevate the esteem of our State’s highest court, protect New Yorkers’ rights and safety, and ensure that justice is administered.”

Chief Judge Rowan Wilson

Judge Wilson graduated from Harvard Law school in 1985, and right out of college became the first partner of color for one of the most prestigious law firms in the country — Cravath, Swaine & Moore. Since 2013, when former-Gov. Andrew Cuomo elected him to the court of appeals, he has distinguished himself as an eminent liberal jurist who has expanded the rights of workers, the rights of criminal defendants and has written dozens of dissents against the court’s more conservative rulings. 

Though Judge Wilson was not Gov. Hochul’s first nomination to be chief, he still is an incredibly prominent figure who the majority of state legislators hope will balance out the court’s previous right-leaning influence under preceding Chief Judge Janet DiFiore with his more liberal ideologies.  

Gov. Hochul’s first choice, New York State Supreme Court Judge Hector LaSalle, was rejected by the Democrat-dominated Senate in February — the first time in state history that a governor’s pick for Chief Judge was rejected and an unexpected response from Hochul’s party as her first elected gubernatorial term. 

Those who opposed Judge LaSalle were concerned about cases he was assigned to in the past where he was unfriendly towards labor unions, formerly incarcerated individuals and reproduction rights. Progressive democrats in the senate who wanted the New York court of appeals to counter the conservative US supreme court were unsure of LaSalle’s ability to set innovative liberal precedents in court rulings. 

Similarly, there were certain senators that were worried about Caitlin Halligan for the same reason. When Halligan was a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, she and her colleagues represented Chevron in their lawsuit against environmental lawyer Steven Donziger

Donziger had previously sued Chevron on behalf of the Ecuadorian Indigenous People whose homeland was polluted by Texaco/Chevron’s drilling. He won the case, however in 2011 Chevron, along with Halligan and her team at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher sued Donziger for racketeering charges. Chevron won, Donziger lost his practicing license and ended up spending six months in prison

Though Halligan has represented powerful organizations in the private sector, she has also worked within the public sector and has done a lot of pro bono work for tenants by enforcing New York’s rent control laws. 

“Because of the wide range of clients you’ve had, you’ve stood by things that seem contradictory,” said Sen. John C. Liu during Halligan’s hearing on April 18. “It’s hard to see where you stand.” 

Legislative Gazette photo by Gabby Gagliano
The Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Brad Hoylman-Sigal, far left, questions Caitlin Halligan prior to her confirmation to the New York State Court of Appeals by the full Senate.

Despite the concerns that Senator Liu and other lawmakers had voiced during the hearing, Halligan was still approved by the Senate in a 47-12 vote. However, Gov. Hochul may be facing some legal trouble from the legitimacy and legality of Halligan’s nomination. Republican lawmakers have scrutinized the measure that Gov. Hochul has taken to expedite the nomination process by allowing her two simultaneous nominees. 

There is still yet to be a confirmed lawsuit. Despite the uncertainty that has faced the New York State Court of Appeals in the last few months, there now soundly sits an approved chief judge and six associate judges.