Remarks by Chief Judge Wilson at NYCLA Annual Gala March 6, 2024

New York County Lawyers Association Annual Gala

Remarks by Chief Judge Rowan Wilson
Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals

March 6, 2024


Good evening.  It is a delight to be here, at the New York County Lawyers Association’s 2024 Annual Gala, honoring the judges of the state and federal appellate courts in New York State.  I am particularly tickled because the decision to honor both the federal and state judiciaries represents a collision of my past and present.  It’s not just that for 30 years my practice was almost exclusively in federal court and now I’m all-state-court-all-the-time.  Chief Judge Debra Livingston, from whom you’ll hear in a minute, was my law school classmate.  Chief Judge Laura Taylor Swain was a pre-law advisor in my undergraduate house, and I got more and better advice about law school from her than I did from my assigned advisor.  And Judge Lewis Liman and I worked together at Cravath for a couple of years. 

Meanwhile, I did not know Presiding Justice Acosta until I was sworn in as a Judge of the Court of Appeals, and much like Judge Swain many years before, he gave me—and continues to give me—sage advice.  I’m not sure when I first met Judge Zayas, but it was well after I’d been serving as a Judge on the Court of Appeals, and when I had dinner with him to—I’m tying to find the right verb here: I would say “beg him to serve as Chief Administrative Judge,” he has said “hypnotize him,” and a neutral phrase could either be “ask him,” or “ply him with scotch”—well, however you want to describe it, that dinner was by far the longest conversation I’d had to that point, with someone whom I now consider one of my close friends and with whom I converse more than anyone outside of my family—actually, more than with several of my family members.

Our two parallel, sovereign judicial systems happily coexist not just in tonight’s event recognizing them, or in my past, present and (with luck) future, but in myriad substantive ways.  The general view is that our setup is complicated: there is considerable scholarship devoted to examining the relationship between state and federal courts and the proper allocation of jurisdiction between the state and federal court systems.  And law schools have developed an entire black letter law course, Fed Courts, to intimidate law students about the subject.  But, even if the nuances are complicated, my overall view on the twin halves of our country’s judicial infrastructure is simple: the state and federal court systems are partners in a single, honest and honorable venture—the delivery of justice.

I thought I’d spend the rest of my time this evening discussing one of my favorite aspects of the interplay between state and federal law: the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.  JK!, which as my twelve-year-old has taught me, means “just kidding.”  Instead, I will spend a couple of minutes on something that affects me and the Court of Appeals more tangibly: the federal courts’ certification of state law questions to the Court of Appeals. 

In the eleven short months since I have served as Chief Judge, the New York Court of Appeals has heard five cases that came to us as certified questions from the Second Circuit.  Decisions in two of those five cases are still forthcoming—we heard argument in Syeed v Bloomberg a few weeks ago, and we’ll hear argument in Lelchook v Société Générale next week.

In the other three cases, we had the opportunity to decide important questions of contract law.  In Nitkewicz v Lincoln Life (40 NY3d 349 [2023]) and Brettler v Allianz Life Insurance (40 NY3d 450 [2023]), we answered two novel questions of insurance law—one about a premium paid into an interest-bearing policy account as part of a universal life insurance policy, the other about the assignment of a life insurance policy.  And just two weeks ago, we issued a decision in Petróleos de Venezuela v MUFG Bank (2024 NY Slip Op 00851 (Feb. 20, 2024), a case about which body of law—Venezuelan or New York—governs the validity of certain notes under New York’s Uniform Commercial Code.

If these seem like dry questions of insurance law and choice-of-law rules, they are not.  They are important, novel questions of state law that govern the contractual rights of the parties before the court, provide guidance to businesses and individuals in the future, and help ensure the fairness and stability of New York contract law, which in turn reaffirms New York’s status as the center of global commerce.  We expedite those appeals not simply because of their substantive importance and the fact that the federal courts and parties are waiting for an answer, but also because the issues have already been well briefed in the federal courts, and the parties therefore can and do prepare excellent briefs for us quickly.

It is also particularly helpful that the Second Circuit always invites us to reformulate the questions if we see a need to do so.  Our preference is not to reformulate them, but sometimes as we work through the intricacies of the legal questions we’ve been asked to answer, we find that the best way to aid the federal courts with the case before them is to alter the wording of the questions presented, or to answer only a subset of them.  The cases sent to us are among the most complex and interesting ones on our docket, and it is our pleasure and privilege to receive those questions and do our best to answer them.  We hope to receive many more in the years to come.  

I may be a little biased in that regard: because those are federal cases, I feel as if I am working with my state colleagues on the Court of Appeals on the federal cases I left behind seven years ago.  It’s truly the best of both worlds, and I now get calls from both Chief Judge Swain and Presiding Justice Acosta!