ALBANY, NY – The governor of New York suffered a historic defeat in just the first few weeks of her new administration.
Gov. Kathy Hochul on Wednesday became the first governor to lose her bid to nominate the state’s top judge, a major rebuke from progressives, labor unions and her Democratic counterparts in the Senate.
Hochul, who narrowly won the election for a full term in November, plowed through to Wednesday’s confirmation hearing despite aggressive opposition. She was met with fierce opposition from fellow Democrats. It is the first time New York lawmakers have rejected a gubernatorial candidate for the state appeals court under the current system, which began in the 1970s.
The committee’s decision to reject Hector LaSalle after a painful confirmation hearing means the full Senate will not consider its choice. The decision, which was rejected by one vote, is an extraordinary blow to Hochul as the six-month legislative session begins.
Hochul quickly rejected the committee’s integrity and authority and called for a full vote in the Senate. The battle pits the moderate governor against the Democratic majority in the legislature and his allies who rallied against LaSalle, who would have been the state’s first Latino chief judge of appeals.
LaSalle’s opponents, despite his support among Latino leaders and Democratic House leader Hakeem Jeffries, were able to outflank Hochul, who has left open the option of filing a lawsuit to overturn her choice to vote. to the Senate floor.
“Although this was a thorough hearing, it was not fair because the outcome was predetermined,” Hochul said in a statement. “Several senators explained how they were going to vote before the hearing even began — including those recently awarded seats on the recently expanded Judiciary Committee. While the committee has a role to play, we believe the Constitution requires action by the full Senate.”
The committee’s chairman, Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal of Manhattan, said Wednesday’s nearly five-hour public questioning by the judiciary completed the review process, and he was incredulous that Hochul wanted to spark a brawl over the state constitution.
“I hope litigation isn’t our future — obviously it’s the governor’s decision, but we have so much work to do in Albany. To be distracted by a lawsuit would be a mockery to the people of New York,” he said.
Ten Democrats on the 19-member panel voted against LaSalle, two voted for him and one, along with the committee’s six Republicans, voted to advance the nomination “without a recommendation.”
But it fell short by one vote, a rare case of an Albany vote that went unapproved. It could leave Hochul in a weakened position heading into the six-month legislative session after she spent her political capital on LaSalle over other potential candidates and after narrowly winning the election last November in the closest New York race since 1994 .
“I hope and I am sure that few of us have time to retaliate and so on,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said of Hochul’s decision and rejection. “We have work to do, and we have work to do on behalf of the people, and we never lose sight of that.”
Most of the votes were almost decided ahead of the hearing — the culmination of weeks of tension surrounding LaSalle’s ethnicity, record, and relationship to the court’s status quo that has resulted in a clash of sides exacerbated by Hochul’s vehement defense of her choice.
At the heart of the debate on Wednesday was whether LaSalle’s ability to advance Democratic values could be determined by parsing any number of the approximately 5,000 cases on his criminal record, including a handful of decisions he had joined that labeled opponents such as ‘anti-abortion’ and ‘anti-labour’.
LaSalle, who is currently presiding over the Second Division of the New York Supreme Court in Brooklyn, said his positions have been misrepresented based on conclusions drawn from a small portion of the cases.
“When we talk about my file, I completely agree with you – we should be looking at the file, but I’m just asking that this agency look at my entire file, not the file that certain lawyers have chosen to look at ,” he said.
“We can look at that — it’s perfectly fair. I’d just ask you to look at the others and give them equal weight.”
Opposition to LaSalle’s nomination has mounted since Hochul selected him from a seven-member list in late December. Things have gotten so feverish that Hochul raised eyebrows on Sunday by comparing LaSalle’s treatment to that of Martin Luther King Jr. during a speech at a church in Brooklyn.
Hochul has pointed to LaSalle’s strong legal standing, its resolve to revive the state’s massive justice system in the wake of pandemic delays, and the historic possibility of having the first Latino chief judge. Several Democratic senators and progressive advocacy groups had dismissed the more moderate choice as the wrong direction for the increasingly conservative Supreme Court, especially because of his background as a former prosecutor.
Wednesday’s hearing was atypical amid normally quiet procedural committee votes — preceded by two opposing meetings of the primary groups that organized around the choice — The Court New York Deserves and Latinos for LaSalle. The demonstrations continued in the packed auditorium, with chants of “Hector, Hector” as LaSalle entered, forcing Hoylman-Sigal to strike the committee’s small, largely symbolic gavel.
“This isn’t going to be a roast, but it’s not going to be your bar mitzvah either,” Hoylman-Sigal told LaSalle.
Hoylman-Sigal began the hearing by suggesting that LaSalle’s statements “tend toward persecution and against civil rights” and pointed to groups such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund that have announced opposition. He was also among several senators who expressed concern that LaSalle said he was proud to have followed the lines of the Republican, Democrat, Workers’ Family and Conservative parties during judicial elections.
“As an LGBTQ person, the Conservative Party stands for everything I oppose, against my right to marry, against my ability to have children, against transgender youth,” he said. “It is painful.”
LaSalle, 54, sought to address the framing of several cases that have emerged in the discourse.
One was related to a crisis pregnancy center that restricted access to their promotional materials for an investigation by the Attorney General.
LaSalle said his agreement with the decision was not an indication that he was personally defending crisis pregnancy centers. But he agreed with the limits on what prosecutors could obtain during the investigation.
Another involved Communications Workers of America and a company’s ability to sue a union official as an individual.
LaSalle said the decision he supported was not new — it was the application of a necessary precedent set decades earlier. He also drew attention to his background as “a working class kid, from Brentwood, New York” and said labor is what brought him to his position today.
“So when people say I’m against labor because of the Cablevision decision, I believe that’s just mischaracterization designed to derail my nomination, but it’s certainly not an adequate characterization of who I am,” he said .
But while LaSalle expressed the nuances of the legal choices he’s made, he also said, “I stand by every decision I’ve signed.”
The hearing was an odd spin on a Democratic governor’s nominee — most of the committee’s Democrats hammered away at him on political and ideological stances, casting doubt on his ability to run New York’s massive justice system and run a bank responsible for countering conservative decisions coming from the US Supreme Court.
Republicans, however, were effusive with their praise for a record they felt proved he would approach the role fairly. Some members of the GOP have expressed great delight at the reports — some divided their peers in the majority party.
“You know, when I read your decisions, and especially when I listened to your opening statement, for a moment I thought I was in the wrong room. You don’t come across as a right-wing conservative idiot,” said Staten Island Republican Andrew Lanza.
Lanza said that while he doesn’t often agree with Hochul, he “can’t imagine her finding a more qualified candidate.”
The intensity of the public discourse amounted to “character assassination,” Bronx Sen. said. Luis Sepúlveda, one of two Democrats to endorse the nomination.
But both lawmakers and LaSalle said this was not representative of conversations they had privately. In the end, the committee’s decision was just a nod to the important implications of the nomination, Queens Sen. said. John Liu, and “none of this is personal.”
“Everyone has treated me with respect and dignity,” LaSalle said. “The private conversations I have had do not reflect the public statements that have been made.”