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State lawmakers' pay raises, new chief judge yet to be finalized as 2022 draws to a close

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New York Now
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The New York State Capitol.

As 2022 draws to a close, two issues are dominating state government. There’s a measure raising state lawmakers’ pay that awaits approval or rejection from Gov. Kathy Hochul. And there’s growing opposition among left-leaning state senators to the governor’s nominee to serve as New York’s next chief judge.

On Dec. 22, state senators and Assembly members voted for a $32,000 pay increase, beginning in January, to bring their base salaries to $142,000 a year.

Hochul is in no hurry to act on the measure. Speaking just before the Christmas holiday, the governor said she has over 1,000 bills that she is sifting through first.

“I have many bills on my desk, the majority of which were passed,” Hochul said on Dec. 23. “That all had to be dealt with before the end of this year. So, I will address that in proper time.”

At the same time, there’s growing opposition among progressive-leaning state senators to Hochul’s choice for the state’s new chief judge.

Justice Hector LaSalle currently presides over the state’s mid-level appeals court in Brooklyn. If confirmed by the Senate, he would be the state’s first Hispanic chief judge.

Some labor union leaders and pro-reproductive rights groups have spoken against the nominee, saying some of his past decisions sided with anti-abortion groups and were against collective bargaining-related issues.

They also say LaSalle, a former assistant district attorney on Long Island, is too pro-prosecution, and a nominee with a record of defending the vulnerable should be chosen instead.

Eleven senators are on record opposing LaSalle. The most prominent is Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, who said Thursday that he would vote against LaSalle. If they don’t change their minds, Hochul would need votes from Republican senators to win LaSalle’s confirmation.

Hochul, who made support for abortion rights a centerpiece of her election campaign, said LaSalle’s rulings are being taken out of context.

“Judge LaSalle has over 5,000 cases that he has been involved with,” Hochul said. “And for anyone to pull out one, two or three cases out of that body of work that goes on through a lifetime, and to find someone as being anti-woman or anti-labor based on those, when if you actually read those cases that are in question, they have nothing to do with the woman's right to choose.”

Hochul said she is not applying a “political litmus test” but wants someone who will carefully consider every case and does not advertise their political leanings. She asked senators to keep an open mind.

“To allow this state to have the very first Latino head up the highest court in New York,” Hochul said, “I think that's historic.”

LaSalle has support among some prominent previous judges, including former Chief Judge Jonathon Lippman, who said LaSalle has the right judicial and legal experience for the job.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Brad Hoylman is one of several senators who wrote a letter asking the state’s judicial nominating commission to consider candidates from more diverse legal backgrounds to serve on a high court that they say already has too many former prosecutors.

Hoylman, speaking on Dec. 22 – the day that Hochul announced her nomination – did not tip his hand on how he might vote, but he said LaSalle will face close scrutiny.

“Colleagues in the Senate and I have articulated concerns, previously,” Hoylman said. “And those still stand.”

In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said only that the Senate looks forward to considering the governor's nomination and will hold a “serious and deliberative process.”

Decisions on the two issues will have to be made next month. Hochul has until Jan. 23 to sign or veto the pay raise bill. The Senate has until that date to confirm or reject LaSalle.

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