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State Senate rejects Hector LaSalle, Gov. Kathy Hochul's choice for chief judge

Judge Hector LaSalle sits at a table
Karen DeWitt
/
New York State Public Radio
Judge Hector LaSalle at his state Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 18, 2023.

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

The action followed a more than five-hour-long hearing that at times turned contentious as LaSalle defended a record that he said has been misrepresented.

Just two senators voted for LaSalle, and 10 voted against. 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,” Committee Chair Brad Hoylman-Sigal said.

Opponents – including the majority of the Democratic senators on the committee – said some of the opinions that LaSalle issued 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 Hochul nominated him in the hearing room, which was packed with lawmakers and supporters, including Jonathan Lippman, the former chief judge of the Court of Appeals.

LaSalle grew up in a working-class, predominately Puerto Rican neighborhood and was the first in his family to go to college.

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 for all walks of life. He also said 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.

LaSalle, who has a wife and two children, 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. The former state attorney general 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 describes 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.

Hoylman-Sigal questioned LaSalle about a pattern in his decisions that he said 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 added that the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which analyzed the decisions, agreed.

LaSalle disputed that portrayal.

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

He also said he won’t “pre-judge cases” and will make decisions based on the facts of the case, and the law.

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 lines, and contributed at least $100 to the Conservative Party.

The nominee also had defenders among the senators.

Luis Sepulvada, 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.

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Karen DeWitt NYS Public Radio
/
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins speaks to the media on Janaury 18, 2023, after the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected Gov. Kathy Hochul's choice for the next chief state judge

“In reading your decisions, and especially in listening to your opening statement, I thought for moment I was in the wrong room,” Lanza said. “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, 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 public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.