A key state Senate committee on Wednesday rejected New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s pick for chief judge of the state's top court, dealing a stunning setback to the Democratic governor and setting up a potential legal clash with her fellow Democrats who lead the Legislature’s upper house.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted against Hochul’s nomination of Hector LaSalle, a Democratic, midlevel appellate judge who would have been the first Latino to lead the Court of Appeals and the state’s judicial branch. LaSalle has been criticized by labor unions, progressives and reproductive rights organizations who say his judicial record makes him unfit to lead the state’s top court.
The vote marked an unprecedented rejection by the Democrat-led state Senate, which had never voted down a governor’s pick for the state’s top court — much less a governor of the same party — since the current system for selecting judges was instituted in 1977.
"I think that the nominee was thoughtful, engaged and responsive, but I believe that there were questions that remain clearly on the part of my colleagues, which is why we decided not to advance the nomination," said Senate Judiciary Chairman Brad Hoylman-Sigal, a Manhattan Democrat.
From the Senate’s perspective, the vote puts an end to LaSalle’s bid for chief judge. Under the Senate’s official rules, a measure doesn’t advance to the Senate floor for a vote if it’s rejected in committee. (The final vote was two senators in favor, 10 opposed and seven voting to advance the nomination without recommendation.)
But Hochul and LaSalle’s allies see it differently. The state constitution’s process for appointing top judges requires the “advice and consent” of the state Senate, which Hochul interprets to mean a vote of the full Senate.
So far, the governor has not ruled out a potential lawsuit to make her case, though her office has been in touch with attorneys about the possibility. In a statement Wednesday, Hochul said LaSalle didn't get a fair hearing from the committee, saying the outcome was "predetermined."
"Several senators stated how they were going to vote before the hearing even began — including those who were recently given seats on the newly expanded judiciary committee," Hochul said. "While the committee plays a role, we believe the Constitution requires action by the full Senate."
The vote came at the conclusion of a five-hour hearing in Albany, where LaSalle spoke publicly for the first time since Hochul nominated him in late December.
LaSalle, a Long Island native and a former Suffolk County prosecutor, is the current presiding justice of the state Appellate Division’s Second Department, a sprawling region that includes Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, Long Island and much of the Hudson Valley.
In a 10-minute opening statement, LaSalle highlighted his family’s Puerto Rican roots, which helped earn him support from Latino leaders who tried in vain to get his nomination over the finish line. He also directly addressed criticism from progressive Democrats and some labor unions, saying he personally supports a woman's right to an abortion and labor unions' right to organize.
“Like every judge, I know that not everyone agrees with every ruling, but I can promise you that in every case, I have sought and will continue to seek to give everyone a fair shake, to listen to arguments carefully, to do my best to apply the law to the facts before us, and to work with my colleagues to reach a fair and just result,” LaSalle told the committee.
But several Democrats aggressively pushed back against LaSalle's credentials, honing in on several cases that drew the ire of progressives and labor leaders.
“My colleagues and I take this duty to represent the people's voice as a check and balance in this process, and as an independent branch of government, extremely seriously,” Hoylman-Sigal told LaSalle. “There have been serious concerns raised about the nominee’s record on upholding New York's laws defending reproductive choice, discrimination, immigration and protecting domestic violence victims.”
Like every judge, I know that not everyone agrees with every ruling, but I can promise you that in every case, I have sought and will continue to seek to give everyone a fair shake.
Immediately following Hochul's nomination of LaSalle in December, the Communications Workers of America came out in opposition to LaSalle, citing his decision to sign on to a 2015 decision that allowed Cablevision to proceed with a defamation case to proceed against union leaders because the company claimed the leaders were acting in their personal capacity.
Some abortion rights groups took issue with a separate decision in which LaSalle sided with a chain of anti-abortion pregnancy centers, which limited former state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s subpoena seeking a broad array of information about the facilities.
Progressive-leaning senators, meanwhile, also took issue with LaSalle’s prior work as a prosecutor in Suffolk County, and have long pushed for governors to appoint more defense or civil rights attorneys to the bench. They’ve questioned whether he would solidify a moderate-to-conservative bloc on the Court of Appeals.
But Hochul has steadfastly stood behind LaSalle, calling him the best person for the job and accusing his critics of intentionally distorting his record. LaSalle also has support from many — but not all — leaders of the Latino community, particularly in the Bronx. Many of them traveled to Albany on Wednesday to urge senators to support his nomination.
It all set up a scenario on Wednesday in which Senate Democrats served as antagonists, asking LaSalle — their fellow Democrat — pointed and aggressive questions about his judicial record and philosophy.
Republicans, meanwhile, struck a far softer tone, suggesting that Democrats were trying to politicize the judiciary.
“You don’t come across as a right-wing conservative nut,” said Staten Island Sen. Andrew Lanza, a Republican.
During Wednesday's hearing, LaSalle said the way he’s been portrayed by his critics is unrecognizable to him and his beliefs. While he was careful not to prejudge any cases that may come before him in the future, LaSalle repeatedly said he personally supports a woman’s right to get an abortion and spoke highly of labor unions and their right to organize.
“Unions protect the rights of working people and offer a vital path to the middle class. We must protect the right to organize to ensure that our unions can thrive,” LaSalle told the committee. “This is what I believe, and if that is different from what you have heard or read, I am happy now to set the record straight.”
Meanwhile, LaSalle's supporters aren't ready to give up the fight.
In an interview shortly after the vote, Roberto Ramirez — the former state Assemblymember from the Bronx who co-founded MirRam Group, the powerful lobbying and political consulting firm — suggested the battle isn't over yet.
“I look forward to the next phase, because this is going to be a heck of a ride,” said Ramirez, who helped organize Latino support for LaSalle.
The story has been updated with the vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee, comments from state Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal, Gov. Kathy Hochul, and Roberto Ramirez.