New York Senate rejects Gov. Hochul’s nominee to lead the state’s highest court

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s nominee to lead the state’s highest court was rejected by a state Senate panel Wednesday, dealing the governor a high-profile setback after weeks of criticism from progressive activists and union officials about the judge’s record.

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee voted not to forward Hector LaSalle’s Court of Appeals nomination to the full Senate after questioning him for more than four hours. Most of Hochul’s fellow Democrats voted against LaSalle.

“The nominee was thoughtful, engaged and responsive,” said Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal, who chairs the judicial committee. “But I believe that there were questions that remain.”

The governor nominated LaSalle just before Christmas, hoping he would become the first Latino to lead the seven-member high court and oversee New York’s judicial system. The state Senate routinely approves such nominees, but Hochul’s pick ran into trouble after a vocal coalition of opponents claimed LaSalle’s judicial record was too conservative.

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Democratic senators at the hearing said they were worried that the judge’s record showed he favored prosecutors’ positions over civil rights and grilled him on individual decisions they considered unfair to workers and unsupportive of reproductive rights. Critics included a number of Senate Democrats, creating an intra-party conflict just as state negotiations over spending and policy are heating up.

Hochul called the Senate hearing unfair and said she believes the state Constitution required action by the full Senate, not just the committee.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul's Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals nominee, Hector D. LaSalle, leaves after giving testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 18, 2023, in Albany, New York. The New York Senate rejected Hochul's nominate to lead the court.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals nominee, Hector D. LaSalle, leaves after giving testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 18, 2023, in Albany, New York. The New York Senate rejected Hochul’s nominate to lead the court. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

“Judge LaSalle demonstrated exactly why he is the right person for this role — because of his extensive experience, judicial temperament and integrity,” Hochul said in a prepared statement.

LaSalle cast himself as product of a humble background, a believer in women’s rights and unions, and a conscientious judge.

“To every one of these positions, I have brought and will continue to bring my lived experience, my experience as a person of color growing up in a working-class community,” LaSalle told the senators.

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LaSalle currently serves as a presiding justice of the Second Department, where he leads the largest state appellate court in the nation with a budget of about $69 million. He was appointed to that position in 2021 by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

His opponents have focused on a small number of midlevel appeals court opinions, most dealing with technical legal issues, rather than big societal questions.

LaSalle told senators he based his decisions on case law. Senators supporting him accused critics of cherry-picking particular cases to make it seem like he was an arch-conservative.

“In reading your decisions and especially in listening to your opening statement, I thought for a moment I was in the wrong room. You do not come across as a right-wing conservative nut,” said Republican Sen. Andrew Lanza.

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Hoylman-Sigal said the concerns about LaSalle’s record needed to be thoroughly aired, given an increasingly conservative U.S. Supreme Court.

“If some people think we are applying an exacting standard at this hearing, we are because we have to,” Hoylman-Sigal said at the hearing. “The stakes are just too high.”

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