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Hochul's chief judge nominee is rejected in full Senate vote

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.

In a full floor vote, the New York State Senate rejected Gov. Kathy Hochul’s choice for the state’s chief judge, 39-20.

It’s the first time in recent history that the Senate rejected a governor’s nominee for chief judge.

The action broke a monthlong stalemate between Hochul and Senate Democrats over whether under the state’s constitution, all Senate members needed to vote on the nominee, Hector LaSalle. But it does not end a lawsuit over the process.

Several Republican senators voted yes, but it was not enough to overcome widespread opposition by the majority of Democratic senators, who said LaSalle was too conservative.

Senate Judiciary Chair Brad Hoylman-Sigal said LaSalle, based on his record, is not a judge who would look out for the most vulnerable. He said LaSalle too often sided in his decisions with the more powerful players in society. And he said after recent actions by the U.S. Supreme Court that struck down the abortion rights decision Roe v. Wade and dismantled New York’s conceal carry laws, there’s no room for ambiguity.

“The stakes are too just damn high in Washington, with the United States Supreme Court overturning our basic rights and liberties,” Hoylman-Sigal said. “And sending more and more of those decisions to the state courts, where this nominee will have a deciding vote.”

Republican senators who voted for LaSalle, including Sen. Andrew Lanza, said LaSalle has built a “life and a record that is beyond reproach.”

“I challenge any of you to find anyone who says or who will tell you that he is not everything that I am saying he is right here,” Lanza said. “Which is one of the most qualified nominees, certainly in my tenure in the Senate, that has come before us.”

Lanza said LaSalle was rejected because he refused to bow to the “radical left” of the Democratic Party.

Two of the handful of Democratic senators who did back LaSalle, Luis Sepulvada and Kevin Thomas, were out of town and not present for the vote.

The vote marks the end of a monthlong constitutional showdown between Hochul and Senate Democrats. The standoff began in January when the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to reject LaSalle, a mid-level appeals court judge, by a 10-2 vote. The Democrats who lead the Senate said they were finished with the confirmation process. They said the entire Senate did not need to vote on the nominee.

That angered Hochul, who said the state’s constitution requires a full vote, and she hinted that she might file a lawsuit. But as the weeks went by, the governor did not go to court, and she did not choose a new nominee, leaving the post of the top judge in New York vacant, and the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, in limbo.

Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins 2-15-23.jpg
Karen DeWitt
New York State Public Radio
State Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins speaks to the media on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, after the Senate voted to reject Gov. Kathy Hochul's nomination of Hector J. LaSalle to chief justice of the New York State Court of Appeals.

It was left to Republicans, who are in the minority in the senate, to file a lawsuit to try to force a vote. A hearing is scheduled for Friday.

The potential that the state’s courts could curb the power of Senate leaders to make decisions on the rules of their house may have prompted the Democrats’ sudden change of heart.

But Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said that’s not the reason why Democrats held the vote. She said she wanted to end what had become a “distraction” to the important work that needs to be done this session.

“We have a state to run. The 2023-2024 $227 billion budget is due in six weeks,” Stewart Cousin said.

Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt said that if it weren’t for the lawsuit, the full Senate vote would never have happened.

“Governor Hochul didn’t do anything to make it happen. She nominated him, and apparently was willing to let him twist in the wind,” Ortt said. “We brought a lawsuit.”

Senator Rob Ortt 2-15-23.jpg
Karen DeWitt
New York State Public Radio
State Senate Republican Minority Leader Robert Ortt speaks to the media on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, after the Senate voted to reject Gov. Kathy Hochul's nomination of Hector J. LaSalle to chief justice of the New York State Court of Appeals. Ortt says the lawsuit over LaSalle's nomination will continue.

Ortt said he does not believe the vote makes the GOP’s court action moot, and he said he expects the lawsuit to continue.

Hochul, in a statement, said she’s glad that the Democrats in the Senate “finally acquiesced” to holding a full vote on her nominee. Hochul spoke earlier in the day before the vote.

“I think this is a good outcome,” Hochul said. “To at least let it get to the floor of the Senate.”

But the governor said the outcome was not based on the “merits.”

Hochul said she will now request a new list of nominees from the state’s judicial nominating commission and start the process all over again.

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.