Rowan D. Wilson would be the first Black chief judge in...

Rowan D. Wilson would be the first Black chief judge in state history. Credit: State of New York / Court of Appeals

ALBANY — Gov. Kathy Hochul on Monday nominated Rowan D. Wilson — one of the most liberal members of the state Court of Appeals — to become New York’s new chief judge.

If confirmed, Wilson, 62, a Manhattan resident who formerly lived in Nassau County, would be the first Black chief judge in state history.

The nomination signaled a likely change in direction for the state’s top court and a strategic shift for Hochul — who suffered a huge political loss in February when her first choice for chief judge, Hector LaSalle, was voted down by Senate Democrats, who considered him too conservative.

This time, Hochul selected a leading progressive judge in Wilson. Analysts said he would help fulfill the governor’s goal of raising the status of the court and changing its direction after years of moving to the political right.

The strategic shift won quick political praise this time from key Democrats and constituency groups — indicating that Wilson, unlike LaSalle, could fly through confirmation hearings.

It’s also notable that Hochul nominated a liberal while she and legislators are stalemated over the state budget, a fight in which the governor is battling progressive Democrats over bail laws and other issues.

Wilson is an associate judge on the Court of Appeals and if he is elevated to chief, Hochul said she intends to nominate Caitlin Halligan, 56 — a respected former state solicitor general — to fill Wilson’s spot as an associate judge on the seven-member bench.

Hochul’s intention to effectively name two Court of Appeals judges in one swoop is unprecedented and would be made possible by a bill approved by the State Legislature last month — a bill that could face a court challenge by Republican legislators.

For now, the governor officially has nominated just one person, Wilson. Senate Republicans said they would meet before deciding how to proceed.

The 1-2 punch of Wilson and Halligan won praise from legal analysts.

Vincent Bonventre, a professor at Albany Law School of Union University who has studied the Court of Appeals, praised Hochul’s choices, saying “both are brilliant.”

“You talk about elevating the court. Wow! These are huge steps in that direction,” Bonventre said. “I think we’re absolutely going to see a different tone, a different direction and a higher level of adjudication at the Court of Appeals.”

Under the previous chief judge, Janet DiFiore, an appointee of ex-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the court had moved in a conservative direction, with prosecutors and companies winning far more cases than defendants and workers than under her predecessor. DiFiore stepped down in August.

Also, during her term, the court dramatically reduced the number of cases it heard annually, rankling some critics.

Wilson grew up in California and graduated from Harvard Law School. He worked in private practice for three decades before Cuomo nominated him for the Court of Appeals in 2017. The chief judge not only leads the Court of Appeals, but also oversees the sprawling state court system.

"Judge Wilson's sterling record of upholding justice and fairness makes him well-suited to lead the court at this critical time,” Hochul said.

In his six years on the bench, Wilson has been one of the most reliable liberal votes on cases. Also, he isn’t a former prosecutor — Senate Democrats had complained that Cuomo had stacked the court with too many ex-prosecutors, such as DiFiore, and it was a chief reason why they rejected LaSalle.

In contrast to the chilly reception for LaSalle’s nomination, all the top Democrats praised Wilson, along with the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus of legislators and several progressive advocates.

“He is exactly the type of person who can restore the integrity and reputation of the Court of Appeals after the damaging tenure of the previous administration,” said Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria).

Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk), ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, limited his remarks Monday to: “Judge Wilson certainly wears his ideology on his sleeve.”

A source said the Senate Judiciary Committee would move quickly to weigh the nomination.

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