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Senate committee OKs Hochul's latest choice for chief judge amid questions about rape case ruling

Judge Wilson, sitting at a desk.
Karen DeWitt
New York State Public Radio
Gov. Kathy Hochul's second pick for top judge, Rowan Wilson, during a hearing of the state Senate Judiciary Committee on April 17, 2023.

Gov. Kathy Hochul’s second attempt to win approval from the state Senate for the next chief judge for New York is having more success.

Senate Democrats who lead the Judiciary Committee voted Monday to confirm Rowan Wilson to be the new leader of the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. But Wilson’s decision in a rape case did raise questions from Republicans -- and some Democrats.

Wilson, already an associate judge on the high court, is known for his opinions protecting workers, victims of gun violence, and the rights of criminal defendants.

“I’m extremely both humbled and grateful for the governor’s nomination,” Wilson told the committee.

If Wilson is confirmed by the full Senate, as expected, he would become the state’s first African American chief judge.

He’s backed by the state’s leading labor unions and progressive criminal justice rights advocates, who describe him as a “champion of marginalized people in society.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Brad Hoylman-Sigal, who voted for Wilson, said judicial nominees must be held to a “higher standard” in the light of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that overturned key rights.

“The United States Supreme Court and federal judges across the country have rolled back long-standing precedents protecting reproductive health, the environment, immigration, gun violence prevention, workers’ protections, and the right to vote,” Hoylman-Sigal said.

Democratic senators voted down Hochul’s first choice for the job, Hector LaSalle, because they believed his rulings on labor union rights and abortion rights showed him to be too conservative and would continue the high court’s trend toward a more right-leaning direction.

But some senators questioned during Monday’s confirmation hearing whether Wilson’s support of defendants’ rights went too far in one case.

In People v. Regan, Wilson overturned a rape conviction and allowed Andrew Regan to be released from a 12-year prison term that he was serving after the prosecutor in the case delayed obtaining DNA evidence from Regan before the trial began. Wilson, in his opinion, said that he was aware the decision “creates a genuine risk that a guilty person will not be punished or not finish out his full sentence to protect vital societal interests.”

The ruling, in March, angered the victim and led the National Organization for Women to ask that Wilson not be confirmed.

Wilson told the senators that while the decision was painful to write, he felt he had to follow the law and past precedent of legal decisions.

“It’s a horrible feeling to have to reverse a conviction in that circumstance,” Wilson said.

The case drew the most questions during the hearing from senators, including the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Anthony Palumbo. He said he didn’t see anything in the case law that would call for the dismissal of Regan’s conviction.

Senator Patricia Canzoneri-Fitzpatrick, also a Republican, read from a dissenting opinion by Court of Appeals Judge Madeline Singas: “The result is a stunning nullification of a jury’s first-degree rape conviction, and a reinforcement of the bleak history of the treatment of sexual assault victims.’”

Wilson said while the victim followed the proper procedures for reporting the crime, prosecutors failed to collect key evidence in a timely manner.

“She did everything right,” Wilson said of the victim. “What she did not deserve was the treatment at the hands of the district attorney.”

Senate GOP Leader Robert Ortt meets with the media at the State Capitol on April 17, 2023.
Karen DeWitt
New York State Public Radio
Senate Republican Leader Robert Ortt meets with the media at the State Capitol on Monday, April 17, 2023.

Several Democratic senators, in their questioning, seemed to agree with Wilson that it was the prosecutors’ fault that the case had to be overturned.

Senate Republican Minority Leader Robert Ortt accused Democrats of hypocrisy. He said the Democrats were far more critical of LaSalle’s rulings than they were of Wilson’s decision in the Regan case.

“Apparently what's not a disqualifier is letting a convicted rapist having that conviction overturned,” Ortt said.

Ortt accused Democrats of being more interested in installing a judge who would help them win a potential future redistricting dispute, something that Democrats deny.

Wilson, in his six years as an associate judge, wrote a number of dissenting opinions. He sided with Senate Democrats against the court’s majority in a 2022 decision on redistricting. The decision struck down the Democrats’ redrawing of the new lines and ordered the lines redrawn by a special master. The results led to Republicans flipping four seats in blue New York.

Wilson, in his dissent, argued that the Democratic-drawn lines should stay.

A full vote on Wilson's nomination on the Senate floor is expected Tuesday.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.