In a room that should have a maximum seating capacity of 65, according to state fire code, more than 90 people from the legal community packed into the historic and ornately-festooned Court of Appeals room for hour-long presentations from newly-minted Chief Judge Rowan Wilson and Governor Kathy Hochul. With all seven justices present, associate justice Jenny Rivera served as the mistress of ceremony for Wilson’s ceremonial investiture, taking 20 minutes to make introductions from the bench.
Although Wilson was officially installed as chief judge five months ago, this investiture was the ceremony in which someone is given an official title. The 63-year-old Wilson’s first day on the job as chief justice was on April 18, after surviving the Senate confirmation process by a two to one margin. He served on the high court as an associate justice from February 2017 to April 2023. He can only serve for another seven years, as 70 is the mandatory retirement age for judges on the Court of Appeals. The seven–member court’s justices have all been appointed by either former Governor Andrew Cuomo or Governor Kathy Hochul, both Democrats.
Wilson practiced his craft at the white-shoe, New York City-based Cravath, Swaine & Moore law firm. The Harvard graduate specialized in antitrust, intellectual property, securities fraud and civil rights litigation.
Hochul, who likes to make historic appointments, highlighted that Wilson was the first Black chief judge on the state’s highest court. Wilson was joined at the ceremony by his wife, Grace, (who is white), and their three daughters Isabel, Anna and Elinor.
“We are here to not just make history, but to start a new era, begin a new era for the state of New York. One that does reflect our values as a people,” Hochul remarked. “And so, it is a great privilege for me to preside over, in my two years as governor, my third investiture. I feel a little bit of responsibility for espousing a certain individual I’m looking for in terms of legal character, personal character, ability [and] also to remind the rest of New York that we have a court that looks like the rest of New York.”
Hochul’s listing of the judges on the court showed that there for the first time in several decades the court includes no Jewish jurists.
“That is an important statement of my priorities as governor, but also a tribute to all the individuals who are joined with us here today [including] Justices Rivera, Michael Garcia, Madeline Singas, Anthony Cannataro, Shirley Troutman and Caitlin Halligan,” Hochul said.
In attendance were many former Jewish members of the Court of Appeals, including former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and former associate members Albert Rosenblatt, Howard Levine and Leslie Stein. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brad Hoylman-Sigal travelled from his lower Manhattan district for the ceremony. Also in attendance was Henry “Hank” Greenberg, a civil litigation, criminal and civil investigations attorney as well who also focuses on regulatory and administrative law with the global law firm Greenberg Traurig, LLP. Since 2020, he has served as chair of the Commission to Reimagine the Future of New York’s Courts, counsel to the New York State Commission on Judicial Nomination, which nominates New York’s Court of Appeals judges, and as chair of the Third Department Judicial Screening Committee. He is also a Life Fellow of the New York Bar Foundation and a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation. New York State Bar Association President Richard Lewis attended as well. The woman behind the scenes, Liz Fine, counsel to the governor, received a heap of Singes praise from the governor.
“I could not find a finer judge selector than Liz Fine, who helps me identify the very best,” Hochul said. “Having an individual [Wilson] who meets all my high standards, and I assure you they’re very high, sitting here today, but also the path that he has taken throughout life, overcoming adversity in his own life, will make him be that person who has that sympathetic ear. And I would say it should not have taken over 176 years to get to a point where we have a person of color sitting in this seat.”
Since 1992, two chief judges resigned from the top legal post – Sol Wachtler and Janet DiFiore. In July 2022, DiFiore announced her resignation as chief judge amid misconduct proceedings, allegedly attempting to influence a disciplinary hearing. Her term ended on August 31, 2022.
Wachtler, who is 93 years old, achieved national notoriety when he was charged with, and then convicted of, acts stemming from threats he made against a former lover, Joy Silverman, and her daughter. Upon conviction, Wachtler served thirteen months in prison and at a halfway house. After his release, Wachtler became an author and critic, as well as an advocate for the mentally ill.
“I feel confident they’ll [the current court] be able to restore people’s faith in government, something we all have an obligation to do, restore faith in this bench and restore confidence that this court will always do the right thing. We’ve always done the right thing,” Hochul said. “Uniting this existing court is so important to me, so critically important that we have a team here that works together, respects each other, elevates each other, listens to each other intently behind closed doors, but comes out here with, as often as possible, a united front to convey the confidence that people have in the decisions. The thought, the care, the brilliance you bring to your decisions, Judge Wilson, is why you’re sitting here. And you’ve proven yourself time and time again. And when we first had a chance to get to know each other, you spoke about your family’s influence on you. Your father was a teacher, your mother very well educated but couldn’t find a job because she was blind.”
Hochul even heard from a senior judge serving in the district court of Huntsville, Alabama.
“Judge Lynwood Smith wrote a letter in support of your nomination. He wrote that your work exemplified the very principles that undergird the legal profession and that you are every inch the equal of one of the most influential judges we’ve ever had, Benjamin Cardozo,” Hochul said, wrapping up her remarks.
Wilson created a deck of playing cards with Cardozo’s likeness on one side and a quote from Cardozo on the side of the pack. He read, “The quest is greater than what it seems, explains why we all should be glad to live in the present with the future unknown and the challenges ahead of us.”
Wilson added, “The quest, like a card game, is a mix of skill and luck. In the end, the great truth would have been learned, the quest is greater than what is sought. The effort is higher than the prize or rather that the effort is the prize. The victory, cheap and hollow, was not for the rigor of the game.”
Benjamin Cardozo, an enrolled Democrat, served on the New York Court of Appeals from 1917 to 1932. That year he was nominated by President Herbert Hoover as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Cardozo threw his endorsement to New Yorker Al Smith, a fellow Democrat, instead of Hoover, a Republican. Despite this, Hoover nominated Cardozo for the nation’s top bench. He served for six years until his death on July 9, 1938, at age 68 in Port Chester, Westchester County.
The Cardozo family were descended from the Jewish-origin New Christian conversos who left the Iberian Peninsula for Holland during the Inquisition. There they returned to the practice of Judaism. Cardozo family tradition held that their converso ancestors were from Portugal, although Cardozo’s ancestry has not been firmly traced to that country.
Cardozo’s paternal grandparents, Ellen Hart and Michael Cardozo, were Western Sephardim of the Portuguese–Jewish community and affiliated with Manhattan’s Congregation Shearith Israel, the oldest congregation in North America and the central social institution of New York’s Sephardic community.
Cardozo is reportedly the first Jewish person to serve on the Court of Appeals and the second Jewish jurist on the U.S. Supreme Court, behind Louis Brandeis.
“After his bar mitzvah, Cardozo stopped attending religious services. In later life, he described himself as an agnostic, but he never failed to identify himself as a proud Jew and remained a Jewish traditionalist in many respects, He refused to allow pork and shellfish into his home and kept a seat at Shearith Israel throughout his life. In 1895, at age 25, he opposed the elimination of gender-segregated seating in the synagogue, a change that would have altered the Sephardic Orthodox minhag. Cardozo delivered a long address, according to the congregational minutes, “impressive in ability and eloquence,” which carried the day for the traditionalist side,” according to the Jewish Virtual Library.
Wilson became philosophical toward the end of his remarks.
“You must not confuse an important job with being an important person. If you have an important job and think of yourself as important you will not perform your job well. The more important your job is, the less able you are to do it alone,” Wilson said. “My new position is more demanding and requires more help. For those who attended because the job is important, know that I need your help and more accurately, the unified court system needs your help. The challenges ahead are great and present great opportunities. The quest to achieve the best possible judicial system must be our focus. That quest will fail without the help of you, my friends and friends-to-be, who truly are friends of New York and its courts. That help, by the way, includes disagreements, criticism and identification of problems. We cannot fix what we don’t know needs repair and we will not always identify on our own the best tools.”
Looking forward to the end of his judicial career in 2030, Wilson addressed his wife.
“I can assure you, Grace, that our joint contribution for our quest for justice will end in seven years, three months and 19 days,” Wilson said as the packed courtroom broke out in laughter. “After which we will enjoy and continue to enjoy a full joyous loving life together – which will be much more relaxing.”