Is it possible for the same governor to botch two appointments for chief judge in one year?
We may be about to find out, after Gov. Kathy Hochul appointed Associate Judge Rowan Wilson this week to lead the state’s top court — two months after the failed nomination of her first choice, Judge Hector LaSalle.
Even though Wilson seems to appeal to the progressive Democrats in the state Senate who helped sink the more conservative LaSalle’s nomination in February, the governor could still have trouble if new challenges to the selection progress are brought and upheld.
The governor then could find herself in the humiliating position of having to nominate a third chief judge candidate.
At issue is the constitutional requirement that the governor select nominees for judgeships on the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, from a list prepared by the Commission on Judicial Nomination. The bipartisan commission comes up with a list of candidates based on merit.
This time around, Hochul actually selected two judges for the Court of Appeals — Wilson for chief judge and former state solicitor general Caitlin Halligan to fill the seat that would be vacated by Wilson — from the same pool of candidates presented by the commission.
Good government groups say that because the chief judge and associate judges require a different set of skills and experience, the nominees should come from two distinct lists.
The chief judge effectively manages the entire state court system, a job that not only requires judicial experience but also significant management and administrative experience. One does not require such experience to merely serve on the court.
Having both positions filled from the same list means that some candidates who would otherwise qualify for associate judge might be left off the list that also includes candidates for chief judge – thereby excluding experienced candidates for associate judge and reducing the opportunity to make the court more diverse.
To get around the issue and speed up the nomination process for both positions, Hochul signed a law this week allowing her to pick both candidates from the same list.
If it all sounds like inside baseball, it is.
But what could happen is that someone — perhaps Republicans in the Senate — could present a legal challenge to the nominations on the grounds that Hochul’s selection of two candidates from the same list violates the constitution, leading to both of her nominations being invalidated.
Adding a twist to the controversy is the fact that Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins on Tuesday came out in favor of eliminating the Commission on Judicial Nomination altogether, effectively removing a constitutional step designed to reduce the influence of politics in the selection process.
All this could once again cloud the governor’s nominations and embarrass her with another failed appointment.
As with her past nomination, this predicament was unnecessarily risky — and easily avoidable.