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Port Washington judge backed for state’s highest court

Rowan D. Wilson, shown in an undated photo,

Rowan D. Wilson, shown in an undated photo, has been nominated by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to serve as an associate judge on the New York State Court of Appeals, the state's highest court. Credit:

ALBANY — Rowan D. Wilson, a Harvard-trained attorney from Port Washington who regularly represented low-income clients as a member of a high-powered Manhattan law firm, was confirmed Monday to join the state’s highest court.

The appointment of Wilson, 56, one of the youngest designees to the Court of Appeals, will mark the first time the seven-member court will have two African-American jurists. The other is Sheila Abdus-Salaam, appointed in 2013.

Wilson credited his blind mother for helping him be fair to all people, regardless of their outward appearance. He said his mother would ask him questions about something as routine as purchasing a can of soup at the grocery store, weigh the facts, and make a careful decision.

“I think she made me as close as a sighted person can be to not to judge a person by how they look,” Wilson said in testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee. “You wouldn’t think having a totally blind mother was a great thing. But it actually was.”

“I think he’s an excellent nominee,” said Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), a committee member. “I think we got it right. This is bipartisan and it should be.”

Wilson replaces Republican Eugene Pigott, who retired Dec. 31 when he hit the mandatory retirement age of 70. Every member of the court is an appointee of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. Only one is a Republican.

Wilson, a partner at the firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore, received the highest ratings from the state Bar Association, the New York City Bar Association and the state Trial Lawyers Association.

He has litigated cases involving civil rights, employee disputes, and has been chairman of the Neighborhood Defender Service for Harlem, where he represents people without the means to hire attorneys.

“By education, by his background . . . you can’t get any better than that,” said Vincent Bonventre, a professor at Albany Law School and an expert on the history of the Court of Appeals.

Bonventre said Wilson has some weaknesses, including a lack of experience as a judge. But Bonventre said his pro bono work helps make up for that.

“He’s more than well-qualified,” Bonventre said in an interview. “I would be shocked if he wasn’t a very fine judge.”

Wilson was peppered by committee members about his position on issues such as gun control and on the constitutionality of President Donald Trump’s 90-day restriction on immigration from seven countries with majority Muslim populations. Wilson declined to offer his opinion on such issues, noting that they could come before the court.

“Affirmative action is not a priority of mine,” Wilson responded to a senator’s question. “Doing my job has always been a priority of mine ... you need to keep an open mind.”

Self-effacing, he had to be pushed by senators to make a case for himself. He responded with humor, “I always hate to talk about myself in a postive way, but what I have heard is ... ”

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