This story was published in partnership with New York Focus, an independent, investigative news site covering New York state and city politics. Sign up for their newsletter here.
In a surprise floor vote on Wednesday, the state Senate brought Judge Hector LaSalle’s candidacy for New York’s chief judge to an end. The move concluded a months-long battle between Governor Kathy Hochul and opponents who saw her pick as too conservative to head New York’s highest court. It also mooted a lawsuit from Senate Republicans seeking to force the vote.
In a massive rebuke to Hochul, 39 out of the chamber’s 63 senators voted to reject LaSalle — with Democrats casting all but one of the votes against him. It was the first time that the Senate has rejected a governor’s nominee to the Court of Appeals, as New York’s highest state court is known.
“We are taking this matter to the floor today to resolve this crisis,” said Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, speaking on the Senate floor shortly before the vote. “The Senate is standing up to do the right thing for the people”
Last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected LaSalle 10–9, with just three of the committee’s 13 Democrats — and all six of its Republicans — voting to advance his nomination to the full Senate.
Senate Democrats said the committee vote was enough to kill his nomination, but last week, Republican Senator Anthony Palumbo sued Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and other Democratic senators, claiming that the state constitution requires the full Senate to vote on the nomination. Holding the vote eliminated the reason for the suit: There’s now no dispute that LaSalle’s nomination has been rejected.
“This vote is an important victory for the Constitution. But it was not a vote on the merits of Justice LaSalle, who is an overwhelmingly qualified and talented jurist,” Hochul said in a statement released after the vote. She had also argued that the constitution required the full Senate to vote.
“Today, the Senate Majority will once again rise to our leadership responsibilities and end the ongoing distraction of the Justice Hector LaSalle nomination,” Stewart-Cousins said in a statement released before the vote. “Our highest court has no appointed Chief Judge, and we need the court system to function. This court case, if allowed to continue, would’ve dragged on for months and stymied our judicial system. It’s time to put this matter to rest.”
Palumbo, who is the highest-ranking Republican on the judiciary committee, said on the Senate floor that Senate Democrats were trying to “pack the court with activists who choose not to follow the law, unlike Judge Hector LaSalle.”
Speaking to reporters in New York City before the vote, Hochul sought to frame it as a win for proper procedure.
“I think this is a good outcome, to at least let it go to the floor of the Senate,” she said. “I believe that the constitution requires this to go to the full Senate for a vote. That was disputed up until today.”
LaSalle would have been the first Latino chief judge of the Court of Appeals. Several Latino political power brokers in New York — including Representative Adriano Espaillat, state Senator Luis Sepúlveda, and influential lobbyist Luis Miranda — aggressively supported his nomination.
But they were outflanked by a broad coalition that rallied against LaSalle, including dozens of law professors, major labor unions, reproductive rights groups, criminal justice reform advocates, and many liberal and progressive state senators. They argued that LaSalle’s record as a judge was unfriendly towards unions, reproductive rights, and people accused of crimes.
The seven-member Court of Appeals currently has three judges who lean conservative and three who lean more liberal, meaning that the next chief judge could determine which bloc controls the court going forward. All three of the more liberal judges applied for the chief judge spot, but were not shortlisted by the panel that screens applicants for the Court of Appeals, New York Focus previously reported.
New York’s previous chief judge, Janet DiFiore, led the Court of Appeals toward more conservative rulings that hemmed in the rights of criminal defendants, workers, and consumers. Before Hochul nominated LaSalle, numerous state senators said they wanted a new chief judge who would reverse that trend and serve as a counterweight to a conservative US Supreme Court.
Hochul selected LaSalle in December from a list of seven candidates prepared by the screening panel. He was generally considered to be one of the more moderate candidates, and a coalition of community groups warned Hochul that if she chose him, they would rally against his confirmation.
With his nomination rejected, the panel must now prepare a new list of seven candidates, from which Hochul will again select one for the Senate’s consideration.
Leaving an event in Manhattan shortly before the vote, Hochul said: “The process starts again.”