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Mellins: LaSalle confirmation promises to be Hochul’s first test as an elected governor

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Unified Court System

Kathy Hochul made her State of the State speech Tuesday, delivering a tone of unity with Democrats in New York. Her speech comes as the state Senate Judiciary Committee will consider her controversial pick for New York’s next chief judge, Hector LaSalle.

WSHU’s J.D. Allen spoke with Sam Mellins, senior reporter at New York Focus, about how LaSalle’s confirmation promises to be Hochul’s first test as elected governor.

WSHU: Sam, briefly can you tell me who Hector LaSalle is? 

SM: Hector LaSalle is the presiding judge — so basically, the chief judge — of the second department Court of Appeals, which is one of the four appeals courts of New York State. He’s from Suffolk County.

WSHU: Right, he was a former deputy district attorney in Suffolk County before he landed on the bench. He was appointed to his current position in 2014 by then-Governor Andrew Cuomo, and would be the first Latino to lead the state’s court system if he’s confirmed. Why did Governor Kathy Hochul pick LaSalle?

SM: He was one of seven candidates shortlisted by the state Commission on Judicial Nomination for the role of chief judge of the state's high court. I don't think anyone disputes that he is eminently qualified for the role based on his experience as a judge, and as a lawyer. I can't speak for the governor, but she probably felt that he aligns with her political values.

WSHU: Is this a step in a different direction from the previous leader of the state's court system?

SM: Well, if you ask the opponents of the nomination — like the deputy majority leader of the Senate, Michael Gianaris, the Democrat from Queens — one of his big complaints about this nominee is that he feels like it would continue in the same direction as the previous head of the court, Janet DiFiore, whom he and other critics feel was too conservative relative to the politics of New York State.

WSHU: And so Hochul’s party seems split on her pick. The state Democratic Party chairman, Jay Jacobs, who also leads Nassau County's party committee, supports her pick of LaSalle. But over a dozen Democrats, especially progressives, are against the decision. Why is this? 

SM: Those Democrats and other people in state politics feel that he is too conservative for New York State. They point to some of his rulings on abortion access issues, on labor union issues and on criminal trials. And they say that he's out of step with New York state politics, and particularly a lot of unions have opposed him over his rulings on labor rights…

WSHU: He has sided with conservatives on the Court of Appeals block, is that right? 

SM: … So he's sort of subbed in as a Court of Appeals judge on two occasions when another judge recused themselves for various reasons. And in both of those occasions, he did side with Janet DiFiore, the former chief, and the more conservative judges on the Court of Appeals.

One of the most controversial decisions that LaSalle made on his current court, where he didn't make it because he signed on to it, was when the state attorney general was attempting to investigate a so-called “crisis pregnancy center,” which attempts to persuade women to not get abortions. LaSalle and some of his fellow judges on that court issued a ruling that limited the scope of the attorneys general investigation into whether that counseling center was practicing medicine without a license.

The other very controversial decision that people have been talking about a lot is one that made it easier for corporations to sue union leaders, which is, I think, the main reason why unions have come out so heavily.

WSHU: What about Republicans, who are in the minority in the Senate? Could they give Hochul enough votes to confirm LaSalle?

SM: So far, several have said that they want to consider his nomination with an open mind. But in general, if something is very heavily opposed by Democrats, who have a supermajority in the state Senate, then Democratic leadership in the Senate doesn't even let it get to a vote. And this could be one of those situations.

WSHU: So, when is this all expected to play out? 

SM: The next step in the process is a hearing in front of the Judiciary Committee of the state Senate, which hasn't been set yet. But it could be next week. And then the Senate — the full Senate — is supposed to vote up or down on the nomination by Jan. 22 — although deadlines can get a little fuzzy in Albany.

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.