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How might Rowan Wilson operate as Chief Judge of NY?

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Dan Clark: We're going to circle back to New York's new Chief Judge, Rowan Wilson. As we told you, he first joined the state's highest court in 2017 when he was nominated by then Governor Andrew Cuomo.
In those six years, a lot has happened. So, to learn more about Wilson and how he might operate as Chief Judge, we spoke this week with Vin Bonventre, an expert on the Court of Appeals from Albany Law School. 
Vin, thank you for coming back. We always appreciate it.

Vin Bonventre: Love to be with you, Dan.

DC: So, Judge Rowan Wilson has been characterized as a liberal judge. He's the new Chief Judge, the first black Chief Judge in New York state. When we talk about a liberal judge, what are we talking about there? What is a liberal judge and what is a conservative judge? Do you agree with the characterization that he is a liberal judge?

VB: Well, certainly he is liberal in the sense that, when you have these very close cases and the cases at  the Court of Appeals are close, but in those especially close cases where the arguments on both sides are just so strong, he would tilt in favor of the rights of the accused, due process, fair trial, as opposed to tilting in favor of crime control, law and order, that kind of thing. So that's what we mean in criminal cases.
In civil cases, for example, the same thing that very close cases, worker rights versus business. He would tilt in favor of worker's rights. In cases involving somebody who is injured, suing someone else who caused the injury, he's much more in favor most of the time of the individual who's been injured and would be entitled to compensation.
That's what we mean. We don't mean that he's some kind of a radical leftist. I mean, we know we've been hearing that, but no, this man is not a radical leftist. He is a traditional liberal.

DC: Republicans have tried to label him as an activist judge. He's been on the Court of Appeals for about six years. Before that, he was not a judge. He was at a very large law firm for a very long time, doing a lot of work there. What do you think about that characterization of him as you've looked at him over the last six years on the bench? Could you characterize him as an activist judge or, what is he?

VB: Usually when politicians use the term activist as opposed to a so-called restraintist, they usually have no idea what they're talking about? I mean, let's just be blunt. They have no idea. When you talk about an activist, what you mean is someone who, for example, doesn't give the proper respect to precedent, doesn't give the proper respect to the other branches of government.
So, for example, an activist would be someone who, like the United States Supreme Court in the Dobbs decision, overruling a 50-year-old precedent. That's activism. That doesn't necessarily mean that the judge's decision or voting is right or wrong. It just means that there hasn't been that degree of respect for precedent or degree of deference to the other branches of government, but whether somebody is an activist or whether somebody is a restraintist, does not have anything much to do with whether they're a good judge or a bad judge.

DC: Have we seen Rowan Wilson act in that way that you just described, in ways that could appear to usurp or challenge other branches of government?

VB: I really can't think of any decision like that where you would say that he's an activist, but, you know, to the extent that more conservative politicians and commentators are saying that he's an activist, what they mean is he's a liberal. I mean, that's basically what they mean.

DC: Now, does that inform at all how we could see him as Chief Judge on the Court of Appeals, just taking back the side of hearing cases and issuing decisions, there's more to the Court of Appeals. You and I have talked before about how under the previous Chief Judge, the docket for the Court of Appeals, the number of cases that they hear had gone down pretty significantly. Do we see any indications that it's going to turn back around under Rowan Wilson. I think he said that at the hearing, but I may not be remembering correctly.

VB: No, you are right.
Look, I don't imagine that suddenly, Judge Wilson's jurisprudence is going to be transformed and suddenly he's kind of become a conservative. Of course, as the Chief Judge, as the leader of that seven member court, you might see him moderate a little, much like we've seen Chief Justice John Roberts on the United States Supreme Court, because now it really is a matter of institutional integrity and he is the leader of that institution. 
With regard to the dwindling caseload during the DiFiore era, he’s made it absolutely clear publicly, he's made it clear to my students, he made it clear the other day at the confirmation proceedings, you cannot be a preeminent court if you're not hearing many cases. The Court of Appeals in the last several years has dwindled its caseload from about 240 or 250 a year now to 80 one year, 90 another year. Who knows why?
I mean the seven judges each have three clerks, don't tell me that's too much work. I mean, they could certainly handle many, many more cases than they have been.

DC: You know, with these new judges joining the court, especially Judge Wilson, the tone of the state court system really is set from the top down. So, Judge Wilson's vision for whatever the court system would be will presumably be implemented by the court system. How do you see him changing the tone of New York's courts, which are this complex web of litigation? It’s just very messy.

VB: Well, the dynamics both within the Court of Appeals itself and throughout the judicial branch has not been very good. It has not been very good over the last few years. I don't know whether that's former Chief Judge Janet DiFiore fault or what it is. Maybe it's the selections that Andrew Cuomo has made. I mean, this is a governor who didn't really care too much about the Court of Appeals, unlike his dad. He basically would have his office send out a press release, oh, I'm nominating so-and-so. His dad always made a big deal of it because his dad understood how important it was, Andrew didn't. 
But again, getting back to what I said before if you have a leader like Judge Wilson, like Chief Judge Kaye or like Jonathan Lippman, you know, somebody who's extraordinarily bright, somebody who knows how to deal with people, they can really produce great changes and improve the judicial system, both in the court and through the judiciary itself.

DC: It is a really interesting time for state courts as we see all these changes and judgeships and court administration over the next couple of years, and we're in the middle of the state budget too.
Thank you for all that, Vin Bonventre from Albany Law School.

VB: Thanks so much for inviting me, Dan.

Watch the Interview

New York NOWHow might Rowan Wilson operate as Chief Judge of NY?

Legal expert Vin Bonventre from Albany Law School discusses New York's new Chief Judge, Rowan Wilson, and what his appointment means for the state's highest court. Bonventre explains the meaning of liberal and conservative judges and debunks claims that Wilson is an activist judge. The conversation also touches on Wilson's potential impact as Chief Judge and the importance of a healthy caseload for the Court of Appeals.