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Rowan Wilson becomes New York's first African-American Chief Judge

A man in a judge's robe shakes hands with a woman in a light blue blazer.
Darren McGee
Office of Gov. Kathy Hochul
Newly inducted Chief Judge Rowan Wilson shakes hands with Gov. Kathy Hochul Sept. 12, 2023.

The state’s first African American chief judge, Rowan Wilson, was inducted into his post Tuesday. As Karen DeWitt reports, the ceremony was the culmination of Governor Kathy Hochul’s lengthy struggle to win confirmation of a new top jurist.

Rowan Wilson took the oath of office as Governor Kathy Hochul, who nominated him to the post, stood by his side.

Hochul says Wilson has a great track record as an associate judge on the court and will lend the high court new respect. She says that’s important at a time when state courts are needed to counter a conservative U.S. Supreme Court.

“As the Supreme Court swerves down this path they’re on, and God knows where it'll end up, taking away women's right to choose, taking away my ability as governor to protect people from concealed guns,” Hochul said. “I needed someone that could be held in such high regard, that when he spoke, rendered decisions, represented this court and represented the state, that he speak with authority and for people to understand, ‘No, this is New York. We do things differently here.’”

Wilson says his goal is to oversee the “best possible judicial system,” and he pledged to have a collegial, not contentious, relationship with others in state government.

"My team and I look forward to working with you collaboratively to improve the lives of all New Yorkers,” Wilson said.

Wilson was not Hochul’s first choice for chief judge. She initially chose Hector LaSalle, who would have been the state’s first Latino chief judge. But several top Senate Democrats objected, saying his track record was not liberal enough. The governor did not back down from her choice, and after weeks of gridlock, the Senate voted to reject LaSalle.

Senate Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris, who was among those opposed to LaSalle, attended Wilson’s induction ceremony. He says the earlier disagreement is now water under the bridge.

“You see it in the universal glee that's here today, people from all aspects of the court system and all branches of government are here to celebrate a historic chief judge,” Gianaris said. “I think Rowan Wilson is going to make us all proud.”

Albany Law School Professor Vin Bonventre, an expert on the New York State Court of Appeals, agrees. He says he hopes Wilson changes the direction of the court, which has been criticized by some as being too conservative and hearing too few cases.

“I think Rowan Wilson is an absolutely marvelous pick. And you know, I'm not the kind of guy that would say that about everybody,” Bonventre said. “I'm hoping that the kinds of decisions that were reflected in his opinions, dissenting opinions now become majority (opinions).”

In addition to numerous other appeals, the Wilson court will also be hearing a key case on redistricting that could decide the fate of which party controls Congress after the 2024 elections.

Wilson’s predecessor, former Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, who resigned in 2022, presided over a court that threw out the new congressional lines drawn by Democrats in the Legislature. That decision was a factor in the Republican Party flipping four seats in November of 2022.

Senator Gianaris, who helped draw those district lines, won’t predict what might happen in court this time around.

“I have no idea,” Gianaris said. “That will be discovered later this year.”

The case will be heard in November.

A man in a judge's robe sits behind a judge's bench.
Darren McGee
Office of Gov. Kathy Hochul
New Chief Judge Rowan Wilson sits on the bench Sept. 12, 2023.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment and interviews newsmakers. Karen previously worked for WINS Radio, New York, and has written for numerous publications, including Adirondack Life and the Albany newsweekly Metroland.