Gov. Kathy Hochul is standing behind her pick to lead New York’s court system despite an onslaught of opposition from progressives and labor representatives that threatened to tank the nomination barely 24 hours after she first announced it.
Hector LaSalle, Hochul’s nominee, has been branded as anti-abortion and anti-union by his critics, in large part because of separate decisions in which LaSalle — a midlevel appeals judge since 2014 — sided with a crisis pregnancy center and against a labor union.
But on Friday afternoon, Hochul offered unequivocal support for her nominee, accusing his opponents of mischaracterizing his record and cherry-picking from his history of more than 5,000 decisions to try to brand him as a conservative.
“All these objections will be overcome when the senators look at [him] with an open mind and actually study the nature of those cases,” Hochul said during a storm briefing in suburban Albany. “So I'm standing with him. I'm proud of this selection and I encourage everyone to give him the fair hearing that he's entitled to.”
LaSalle, of Long Island, is currently the presiding justice of the state Appellate Division’s Second Department, a sprawling judicial district that includes Brooklyn, Queens and the New York City suburbs. LaSalle, the son of Puerto Rican parents, would be the first Latino to serve as chief judge. Should he survive a state Senate confirmation hearing, he would succeed Janet DiFiore, who announced her departure from the bench earlier this year.
Hochul nominated LaSalle for the top role late Thursday morning — hours before state lawmakers passed a bill giving themselves a $32,000 raise, a measure that Hochul will have to sign into law to bring into effect.
Almost immediately, some of the progressive-minded members of the state Senate — which will have to confirm Hochul’s nomination — came out in opposition to LaSalle.
“[Gov. Hochul] had the opportunity to nominate a chief judge that prioritizes the needs of vulnerable New Yorkers,” tweeted Gonzalez, a Queens Democrat who will take office next month. “Instead she chose one of the most conservative justices on the appellate bench. I hope my colleagues join me in voting NO on Hector LaSalle.”
By Friday afternoon, the number of Democratic senators and senators-elect opposing LaSalle’s nomination grew to 10, including Sens. Cordell Cleare and Robert Jackson of Manhattan and Sen. Gustavo Rivera of the Bronx — who said he cannot support LaSalle “at this moment.”
The growing opposition is already enough to put LaSalle’s nomination on thin ice.
It takes 32 votes to pass a nomination in the Senate. Starting in January, there will be 42 Democrats in the 63-seat chamber. If just one more Democrat were to oppose LaSalle’s nomination, that means Senate Democrats wouldn’t be able to approve it without Republican support — and Democratic leaders rarely allow a floor vote when that’s the case.
“While I recognize that this may be an important moment for our Latino communities, at this moment I cannot support Gov. Hochul's nomination of Judge LaSalle as chief judge given his anti-choice and anti-union decisions when these rights are being attacked nationally,” tweeted Rivera, who is also Puerto Rican.
So far, just three Democratic senators have issued statements of support for LaSalle, including Sen. Luis Sepulveda of the Bronx.
LaSalle’s allies, including Hochul and former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, say his judicial record is being mischaracterized.
Two days before Hochul’s nomination, the Communications Workers for America union issued a statement heavily criticizing LaSalle because he signed on to an opinion that went against the union in 2015.
That decision in the case of Cablevision v. CWA District 1 found legal protections that keep labor leaders from being sued don’t apply if they were acting in a personal capacity and not their union roles. The decision allowed Cablevision to continue with a defamation suit against CWA and its leaders.
Justice LaSalle’s record makes it clear that he would undermine the important progress New York has achieved in recent years to defend worker rights and gender equity.
In a separate 2017 case, LaSalle signed on to an opinion that went in favor of Evergreen Association Inc., which operated a series of anti-abortion pregnancy centers under investigation by then-Attorney General Eric Schneiderman at the time. Schneiderman had issued a subpoena to Evergreen, but the court stepped in to limit its scope because it found the subpoena was too broad.
“If you actually read those cases that are in question, they have nothing to do with the woman's right to choose,” Hochul said Friday. “And on the labor issue, it was a procedural decision to send it down for the trial courts. So I think there's been a mobilized (opposition) effort from the beginning.”
Labor unions don’t see it that way.
Several major New York unions — which are political power players and traditional Democratic allies — have come out against LaSalle’s nomination, including 32BJ SEIU and CWA District 1.
“Unfortunately, Justice LaSalle’s record makes it clear that he would undermine the important progress New York has achieved in recent years to defend worker rights and gender equity,” said Manny Pastreich, 32BJ president. “We strongly urge the Senate to reject this nomination.”
Lippman, the state’s chief judge from 2009 to 2015, said he anticipates the Senate will come around to LaSalle, whom he characterized as “someone who has real institutional gravitas.”
“I anticipate him getting through,” Lippman said. “He has a record. That’s what judges do. It goes with the terrain. You have cases that you have to make decisions on. You can't be afraid of how the wind is blowing that day. You've got to be someone who calls them the way they see them, and that's what I believe he has done his whole career.”
LaSalle will get his chance to make his own case to the Senate sometime in January. The chamber has 30 days to hold a hearing on Hochul’s nomination, at which point he will answer questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee before the chamber decides whether to approve him for the chief judge role.