New York

New York's first Black chief judge looks to change narrative of criminal justice system

Rowan Wilson, the first Black individual to hold the significant position of chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals, has a deeply personal commitment to justice — and sees the time he has in this role as a unique opportunity to effect meaningful change

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In his chambers overlooking Park Avenue, Rowan Wilson, the chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals and the first Black individual to hold this significant position, reflects on his impactful tenure, nearly a year after his appointment.

Raised in Berkeley, California, amidst the activism of the Black Panther movement and the tumult of the Vietnam War, Wilson was imbued with a nuanced perspective on justice, informed by empathy and critical analysis. His educational path through Harvard College and Harvard Law School further honed his legal approach.

Wilson's commitment to justice is deeply personal.

"I very much care about people," he states, emphasizing his dedication to ensuring fairness within the court system. "And if that ends up making me liberal in somebody's mind, OK. But, what I care about is that people who come into the court system, whatever the result is, think that the court system is treated unfairly."

As the administrative head of the Unified Court System, with its 16,000 employees and a $3 billion budget, Wilson faces numerous challenges. He has particularly focused on addressing the needs within the family courts.

"It is more judges and the legislature and governor have given us more judges. And we've asked for even more, and we will get those. We need in addition to the judges, obviously, more court clerks, the court officers," Wilson articulates, emphasizing the broader scope of necessities. "It's not just that the courts need resources, it's if we're going to try and provide better outcomes for people, the state needs to have better resources for care both before people wind up in court."

The issue of evictions in New York City, which have returned to pre-pandemic levels with approximately 1,450 evictions in January, is a significant concern for Wilson. He identifies the lack of affordable housing as a core problem, pointing out the judiciary's limited capacity to address the systemic issues of housing scarcity and poverty.

Wilson made history as the first Black partner at Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP, emphasizing his leadership in promoting diversity and inclusion, particularly through his efforts to recruit Black candidates. This landmark achievement not only marked a personal milestone but also reflected his commitment to enriching the legal profession's diversity.

Wilson is acutely aware of the complexities surrounding minor offenses, particularly in light of the increasing complaints of retail theft, which have surged by 77% from 2017 to 2022, according to data from the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice. This context informs his reflections on the broader implications of such offenses within the justice system.

"If somebody steals, you know, a tube of toothpaste, which happens, right happens a fair amount, they need the toothpaste. But it also means we shouldn't send them in Rikers, because they stole a tube of toothpaste, they probably have a variety of needs, some of them just poverty," Wilson explains, underscoring the need for a justice system that addresses the root causes of offenses beyond mere punitive measures.

Justices of the New York Court of Appeals, including the chief judge, are appointed to 14-year terms. However, Wilson, who will turn 70 in 2030, is subject to the mandatory retirement age for judges in New York, meaning he will only be able to serve 7 years of his term.

Reflecting on his tenure, Wilson sees his role as a unique opportunity to effect meaningful change.

"I still consider this moving on up because I'm able to do much more good for the people of New York here in this job," he notes.

With an acute awareness of the limited time he has to make an impact, he adds, "And you know, time is ticking. I have until 2030 before I age out of the job. And I'm going to try and use every single one of those years to the best of my ability.”

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