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Hochul says she won't rush to take action in her fight with the Senate over her chief judge nominee

Gov. Kathy Hochul gives her State of the State speech on Jan. 10, 2023
Mike Groll
Gov. Kathy Hochul's office
Gov. Kathy Hochul gives her State of the State speech on Jan. 10, 2023

More than a week after the state Senate Judiciary Committee rejected her nominee for chief judge, Gov. Kathy Hochul said she still hasn’t decided whether to go to court to try to force the full Senate to vote on her choice.

The senators on the committee voted down Justice Hector LaSalle by a wide margin: Two voted yes, 10 voted no and seven voted to advance him without recommendation.

Many progressive-leaning Democrats in the Senate say LaSalle is too conservative to head the state’s court system.

Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins maintains the process is finished, and that a vote by the full Senate is not required under the state’s constitution.

“What happened was, there were not enough votes to bring the nominee to the floor,” Stewart-Cousins said. “So therefore, the nominee did not go to the floor.”

But the governor said the committee vote was unfair. Before the confirmation hearing, four members — three of whom had already said they opposed LaSalle — were added to the panel. Hochul said that stacked the committee against her nominee.

Hochul hints that she might take the Senate to court to try to force a full floor vote, which she believes is required under the state’s constitution. She’s been consulting legal experts. But pressed by reporters on her next move, Hochul said she won’t rush her decision.

“You’ll all know everything you need to know in due process and in due time,” said Hochul, who added she is conducting a “thoughtful analysis” to decide what is best for New Yorkers.

“That is my guiding star, to do what’s best for the people of New York,” she said.

Supporters of LaSalle, including the state’s former chief judge Jonathon Lippman, are taking Hochul’s side in the constitutional standoff. Lippman said the constitution is clear, and the full Senate must vote on the nominee.

“In my view, it’s very important that there be an up-or-down vote,” Lippman said. “For the future of the judiciary.”

Lippman said not holding a full vote also undermines the merit system for choosing Court of Appeals judges that was put in place in the late 1970s. Since that process was established, no chief judge nominee has been rejected by the Senate until now.

Even if Hochul succeeds in forcing a full vote, there’s no guarantee that LaSalle would become the next chief judge. While some moderate Democrats and many Republicans, who are in the minority party in the Senate, have indicated they may support LaSalle, they have not said they would actually vote for him.

Lippman said the outcome of the vote is not as important as upholding what he believes is required under the constitution.

“Let the chips fall where they may,” Lippman said. “If he’s confirmed, then he’ll be the chief judge. If he’s not, we’ve fulfilled the constitutional design and the constitutional process.”

Hochul could also pick another name from the seven people on the list that the judicial nominating commission sent her last fall. Or she could start the process all over again and request that the commission send her a new set of names. She could then pick someone who has more support among Senate Democrats and the progressive wing of the party in that chamber.

But the governor said she’s not doing that.

“I chose the best person from a list of seven,” Hochul said.

Stewart-Cousins said she has not spoken to the governor directly about the issue since the committee hearing and vote. But she said she does not expect the dispute to sour the state budget process. Hochul is due to release her budget plan Feb. 1.

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.