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State Senate committee rejects Hochul's pick for chief judge

Hector LaSalle.png
Dan Clark
/
New York Now
Hector LaSalle takes questions during a State Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, January 18, 2023

The New York State Senate Judiciary Committee dealt a political blow to Gov. Kathy Hochul Wednesday when it voted to reject her nominee for the next chief judge of the state, Hector LaSalle.

The action followed a hearing that at times turned contentious as LaSalle defended a record that he says has been misrepresented.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Brad Hoylman-Sigal held the vote after a more than five-hour hearing.

Just two senators voted for LaSalle, 10 voted against, and seven, including the six Republicans on the committee, voted to advance the nomination to a vote on the Senate floor without a recommendation.

“The nomination is lost,” Hoylman-Sigal said after the vote.

Opponents, which include the majority of the Democratic Senators on the Judiciary Committee, say some of the opinions issued by LaSalle in his current job as the head of a mid-level appeals court show him to be biased against abortion rights, labor unions, and due process for criminal defendants.

LaSalle spoke publicly for the first time since Gov. Hochul nominated him for the post of chief judge, in a hearing room packed with lawmakers and supporters, including the former chief judge of the Court of Appeals, Jonathan Lippman.

LaSalle, who grew up in a working-class, predominately Puerto Rican neighborhood, was the first in his family to go to college, and has a wife and two children. He said the judicial decisions in question, as well as his own personal beliefs, are being misconstrued.

LaSalle said he believes in equal access to justice for people from all walks of life, and believes New York and other states have a special role in upholding rights under threat by recent actions by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I personally strongly believe in a woman’s right to make her own reproductive decisions,” LaSalle said, as supporters applauded.

Though LaSalle said he won’t "pre-judge cases," and will make decisions based on the facts of the case, and the law.

He said he does not want his daughter to have fewer rights than his wife did.

LaSalle said his ruling that his opponents say is against abortion rights, Evergreen v. Schneiderman, was actually about prosecutorial overreach. Former state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was investigating anti-abortion pregnancy clinics and had issued a dozen subpoenas. LaSalle permitted 10 of the subpoenas, but said the other two violated the clinics’ first amendment rights.

He also described himself as pro-union and a backer of due process rights. But some Senators, including Sean Ryan, questioned a decision where LaSalle permitted the Cablevision corporation to go ahead with a defamation lawsuit against union organizers who had bad-mouthed the conglomerate during a tele-town hall.

“The decision sets up a situation where we seem to be helping Goliath at the expense of David,” Ryan said.

LaSalle said he ruled against the organizers because they were speaking as private citizens, not as union members.

Judiciary Chair Hoylman-Sigal questioned LaSalle about a pattern in his decisions that he says sided against civil rights claims made by criminal defendants in three-quarters of the cases.

“I just gotta say that these are troubling trends in your record,” said Hoylman, who said the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which analyzed the decisions, agrees.

LaSalle disputed that portrayal.

“The person they describe, I do not recognize,” LaSalle answered. “That is not me.”

LaSalle also acknowledged, under questioning from Hoylman-Sigal, that he ran for Supreme Court Judge on the Conservative Party line, as well as, at different times, the Democratic, Republican and the left-leaning Working Families’ Party line, and contributed at least $100 to the Conservative Party.

The nominee also had his defenders among the Senators. Sen. Luis Sepúlveda, who is also of Puerto Rican heritage told LaSalle that he’s been subject to "character assassination." Republican Sen. Andrew Lanza said, based on his reading of LaSalle’s entire body of cases, he sees a fair judge who does not let his ideology influence his decisions.

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

Now that the Judiciary Committee has rejected LaSalle, Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said the process is finished.

“It’s clear that this nominee was rejected,” Stewart-Cousins said. “And that’s it.”

She said the state judicial nomination commission will have to select a new list of names, and Hochul will have to choose a nominee from that list, and once again seek senate approval.

But Hochul disagrees. In a statement late Wednesday, she called the hearing "unfair," because many Democratic Senators had already made up their minds to vote against LaSalle.

The governor contends that the state’s constitution requires that the entire Senate must hold an up or down vote on the nomination, a scenario where she would be more likely to prevail, if Republican Senators were to join Democratic supporters and vote yes for LaSalle.

It’s likely that the dispute over the next chief judge could end up in court.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.