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State Senate to hold high-stakes hearing on Hochul's choice for chief judge

Gov. Kathy Hochul joined with Latino leaders to support her choice for the next chief judge of the state, Hector LaSalle, on Jan. 14, 2023.
Don Pollard
Office of Gov. Kathy Hochul
Gov. Kathy Hochul joined with Latino leaders to support her choice for the next chief judge of the state, Hector LaSalle, on Jan. 14, 2023.

The State Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a high-stakes hearing on Wednesday to consider Gov. Kathy Hochul’s choice to lead the state’s highest court, Hector LaSalle.

LaSalle would be the first Latino chief judge in New York, but he currently does not have the votes among Democrats to be confirmed.

Opponents of LaSalle’s confirmation, including 14 Democratic state senators, say some of his opinions, issued in his current role as the head of a mid-level appeals court in Brooklyn, show that he is anti-abortion rights, anti-union and against due process.

Sen. Kristen Gonzalez — who, like LaSalle, is of Puerto Rican heritage — is asking the governor to pull the nomination.

“Please deliver a nominee that aligns with the values of all New Yorkers,” Gonzalez said during an anti-LaSalle rally held on Jan. 9. “That will fight for our rights, stand with unions and immigrants.”

The court has leaned more conservative in recent years, and opponents worry that choosing LaSalle, a former prosecutor, to lead the high court could cement a conservative-leaning majority for years to come.

Hochul is undeterred by the opposition. She doubled down on support for her nominee, holding a rally over the weekend in the Bronx with key Latino and Puerto Rican political leaders, as well as the minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, Hakeem Jeffries.

Hochul said opponents are unfairly distorting a handful of cases where LaSalle signed on to unanimous agreements issued by the appellate court.

“I saw the cases, even those that are being maligned and used against him, and they are false,” Hochul said. “They are being falsely represented. And that’s what I will not stand for.”

Albany Law School professor Vin Bonventre, an expert on the Court of Appeals who wrote a report that showed the court’s increasingly conservative direction, agrees with the opponents' desire to curb that trend.

But Bonventre, who said he himself is a liberal Democrat, said LaSalle’s rulings in the cases in question are nuanced and do not show that he is against abortion, labor unions or due process rights.

“He’s absolutely being misrepresented,” Bonventre said. “His votes are being totally mischaracterized.”

Bonventre said the court’s reputation has suffered in recent years, but having an ideological fight over LaSalle is not the way to restore it.

“Unfortunately, it kind of looks, smells and tastes a little bit like what has happened with regard to the United States Supreme Court,” Bonventre said. “Where you have these ideologues that are insisting that they have a particular kind of justice on the court, someone who matches their ideologies. Otherwise, they are completely and utterly against the individual.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Brad Hoylman-Sigal said he views the impassioned arguments over the selection of a new chief judge as encouraging. He said it’s a natural outgrowth of the concerns over the increasing politicization of the nation’s high court.

“There’s no more important nominee in my time in the Senate than this chief judge,” Hoylman Sigal said. “It will set the course for the next decade or longer.”

Hoylman-Sigal, who has not publicly said how he might vote, said LaSalle will get a full and fair hearing where his rulings as a judge, as well as his career as an assistant district attorney on Long Island, will be thoroughly examined.

“And hopefully, we’ll get a much better sense of his vision for the Court of Appeals,” Hoylman said. “And then my colleagues and I can make our decision accordingly.”

Hochul and State Senate leaders are also at odds over the confirmation procedure itself.

Senate Democrats believe that if the Judiciary Committee rejects LaSalle, the matter is settled, and the governor will have to select another nominee. But Hochul maintains that the full Senate must vote on LaSalle, regardless of what the committee decides.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.