Drama spices fight over top state judge pick

ALBANY — The opening days of the 2023 legislative session are being dominated not by squabbles over partisan bills but a showdown over Gov. Kathy Hochul’s nominee to become New York’s next chief judge.

Hochul’s pick for the vacancy is Hector LaSalle, presiding judge of the second department of the Appellate Division. The Long Island native is a Democrat who previously worked as an assistant district attorney for Suffolk County.

If confirmed by the Senate, he would become New York’s first Latino chief judge.

In announcing her selection last month, Hochul lauded LaSalle’s “outstanding” skills as a jurist, pointing to what she called his “sterling reputation as a consensus builder.”

But not all Senate Democrats share that view, with 14 of them signaling they are disappointed with the nomination.

Some of them argue it was a mistake for Hochul to tap a nominee with a background as a criminal prosecutor. Other critics maintain LaSalle has sided with anti-abortion advocates and opponents of organized labor.

Sen. Julia Salazar, D-Brooklyn, the chair of the Senate Crime and Correction committee and a member of the Democratic Socialist wing of the majority conference, described her reaction to the nomination as “a hard no.”

“Deeply disappointed in the governor’s nomination of someone with a clear anti-union, fundamentally conservative record on the bench to be chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals,” Salazar said after Hochul announced her selection.

Several judicial associations and Hispanic organizations have rallied behind LaSalle, however. Some Republican senators, in a case of strange bedfellows, have also warmed up to the nominee, setting the possible stage for LaSalle to win confirmation — but only with GOP support and moderate Democrats who maintain Hochul was on solid ground with her selection.

“There are plenty of people who look up to him as a judge and are rooting for him within legal circles,” said George Arzt, a veteran New York Democratic strategist. “To have the left trying to diminish a very, very good judge makes them look small. It’s ludicrous for these people to try to taint him.”

LaSalle, 54, is expected to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week.

Karl Sleight, an Albany attorney who is the former executive director of the New York State Ethics Commission, questioned the line of attack against LaSalle based on the fact he once served as a prosecutor.

“Prosecutors have a special obligation to administer justice fairly and impartially, unlike other attorneys who are solely committed to the advancement of their clients’ interests,” Sleight told CNHI. “Under these circumstances, his experience as a prosecutor is a positive attribute in his career on his way to becoming a judge.”

Sleight also said speculation over how a judge might rule on certain issues based on previous rulings has often proved to be off the mark.

“There’s a history of imprecision in trying to guess how a judge will rule in the performance of his duties,” he said.

In a move some observers have likened to moving the goal posts while a game is in progress — or in this case after the governor announced her selection — Senate Democrats decided this week to expand the Judiciary Committee by four additional members, leaving the panel with 19 senators.

If LaSalle fails to muster sufficient backing, the nomination would not survive to go to the full Senate for a vote.

Between now and the hearing next week, Hochul operatives have their work cut out for them, suggested Gerald Benjamin, former dean of the political science department at SUNY New Paltz.

“When major senators say there is no way they are going to vote for a nominee, that’s serious. It doesn’t happen,” Benjamin said.

Indeed, no governor has had a top judicial nomination blocked by the Legislature.

Hochul still has time to try to smooth the turbulence, Benjamin said. “She could try to create a context where the outcome would be accepted because it’s in the frame of a broad number of decisions and she is just starting,” he said.

One ally of criminal justice reformers, Bronx District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, offered his strong support to the nominee Thursday.

“Upon reviewing Judge LaSalle’s decisions and writings, the New York State Bar Association, New York City Bar Association, New York State Trial Lawyers Association, and every Latino bar association in the state found LaSalle to be qualified and that he will strengthen and balance the court’s decision making and advance the court’s commitment to equal justice,” Gonzalez said in a statement.

Senate GOP Leader Rob Ortt, R-Niagara County, is calling for LaSalle to receive a fair hearing before the Judiciary Committee.

A retired judge now serving in the Legislature, Assemblyman Angelo Morinello, R-Niagara Falls, said he hopes the fate of the nomination will be determined at an open hearing, and not in the crossfire of social media.

“I support the normal process, not having the agenda controlled by social media,” Morinello said.

The next chief judge will likely have a major impact on the direction of the state’s high court. Last August, Janet DiFiore stepped down from the job, creating the vacancy Hochul seeks to fill.

DiFiore, appointed by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, was a former Westchester County district attorney whose conservative views on criminal justice matters were ideologically out of step with many of the progressives now wielding influence in the state Senate.


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