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Hochul, Senate Democrats face constitutional confrontation over chief judge pick

Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks to the media about her nominee for chief judge, Hector LaSalle, and other issues, on Jan. 12, 2023.
Karen DeWitt
New York State Public Radio
Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks to the media about her nominee for chief judge, Hector LaSalle, and other issues, on Jan. 12, 2023.

The state Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on Gov. Kathy Hochul’s nominee for the next chief judge, setting up a potential showdown between Hochul and the Senate over differing interpretations of the state’s constitution.

Fourteen Democratic senators already have said they won’t vote for Hector LaSalle, who leads a mid-level appeals court in Brooklyn. The progressive-leaning senators say LaSalle sided against union interests, due process rights for defendants, and against abortion rights in some cases where he joined other judges to issue an opinion.

LaSalle will face questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was expanded earlier this month to include three more Democrats, all of whom have said they would not support Hochul’s pick, making it likely that the committee will reject him.

Hochul strongly defends LaSalle, saying that opponents are portraying him unfairly. She said he’s been “horribly maligned based on a handful of cherry-picked cases” out of 5,000 proceedings that the judge has presided over. She said LaSalle has sided with labor unions much more often than he has ruled against them.

“So, there is a whole body of evidence,” Hochul said.

Hochul said it’s absurd to think that she, as the state’s first woman to become governor who is strongly pro-abortion rights and an ally of labor unions, would choose a nominee who opposes those things.

The governor said even if the judiciary committee votes against LaSalle, the fight isn’t over. She believes that, under the state’s constitution, the committee’s decision could be bypassed. She said the constitution states that the confirmation process is supposed to include the entire Senate.

“Because the constitution of the state of New York is clear,” Hochul told reporters on Thursday. “The New York State Senate has to consent and advise the governor on her appointment.”

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins disagrees with Hochul’s interpretation of the constitution. She said if a nomination or a bill is rejected in the committee process, it does not move to the Senate floor.

“Anything that comes to the floor goes first through committee,” Stewart-Cousins said. “It doesn’t get to the floor unless it gets out of committee.”

But Stewart-Cousins, who has said it would be “easier” if Hochul withdrew LaSalle’s name and chose someone else, also said it’s too soon to “presume” a particular outcome.

The hearing begins at 10 a.m. and is expected to be lengthy. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Brad Hoylman already has said LaSalle will face a “high bar.”

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.