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GOP senators say they filed suit to force vote on Hochul's chief judge pick after she failed to act

Senate Republican Minority Leader Robert Ortt holds a news conference at the State Capitol on Feb. 13, 2023, to talk about his party's priorities for the state budget.
Karen DeWitt
New York State Public Radio
Senate Republican Minority Leader Robert Ortt holds a news conference at the State Capitol on Feb. 13, 2023, to talk about his party's priorities for the state budget.

Republicans in the state Senate spoke out Monday for the first time since filing a lawsuit to force a full vote of the Senate on Gov. Kathy Hochul’s nominee for the next chief judge, saying they acted because the Democratic governor did not.

Normally, Hochul allies with other Democrats who hold a supermajority in the state Senate on many issues. But she’s had a falling-out with them over her choice for the new chief judge, Hector LaSalle. Many Democrats, including the majority in the party on the Senate Judiciary Committee, believe LaSalle was too conservative. In January, they voted against advancing his name for a full Senate vote.

That angered Hochul, and she threatened to go to court to force a full vote. But nearly a month since that vote, the governor has not acted.

Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt said Republicans filed the lawsuit when the governor seemed to be stalled.

“I sort of expected her to file something. It's her nominee. He hasn't withdrawn his name. She hasn't withdrawn his name. He's just sort of dangling out there,” Ortt said. “It seemed kind of odd.”

Ortt also criticized Hochul for lacking a clear strategy to get her Democratic allies in the Senate on board with LaSalle, who would be the first Latino chief judge in New York.

“And that is historic. But apparently it wasn't historic enough for her to really lean in and fight to get him to a floor vote or even through committee,” Ortt said.

If the Republicans were to win their lawsuit, and a full Senate vote took place, Hochul would need the backing of some of the GOP senators for LaSalle to be confirmed. LaSalle does not have enough support among Democrats to win.

Ortt said he and his members are not committing to vote yes for LaSalle. He said they filed the lawsuit to enforce what they believe the state’s constitution requires -- a vote by all 63 senators.

“I have several senators here who aren't on the Judiciary Committee, their constituents who elected them expect them to get a say on who sits on the highest court in the state,” Ortt said. “So it's not about anyone up here voting one way or the other. But everyone up here should get a vote on that. I think their constituents would expect that.”

Even though Hochul and the Senate Republicans are on the same side of this issue, they say they are not coordinating their efforts.

Hochul, speaking at an unrelated event in Rochester, said she doesn’t plan on joining the GOP’s court action or filing a supporting brief.

“It was unexpected to see them file a lawsuit,” Hochul said. “What I have said all along, I still remain standing strongly behind the premise that the constitution, the state of New York, requires that the Senate consider a nomination from the governor's.”

Hochul would not say whether she will file her own legal action. But she said she does want to see how the Senate Republicans’ action progresses.

The judge in the case could hold a preliminary hearing as early as this Friday.

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.