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The fight between Hochul and the state Senate over the chief judge is not yet over

Gov. Kathy Hochul poses for a photo with supporters of Hector LaSalle at the Latino Pastoral Action Center Leadership Meeting Jan. 14, 2023, in the Bronx.
Don Pollard
Office of Gov. Kathy Hochul
Gov. Kathy Hochul poses for a photo with supporters of Hector LaSalle at the Latino Pastoral Action Center Leadership Meeting Jan. 14, 2023, in the Bronx.

Gov. Kathy Hochul is considering her options after members of her own Democratic Party in the Senate Judiciary Committee voted down her choice for the next chief judge of the state.

Just two of 13 Democrats on the committee voted for Hector LaSalle after Wednesday’s five-hour hearing.

Ten voted no, and one Democrat joined the six Republicans on the committee to vote to advance LaSalle’s name but without a recommendation.

LaSalle, the presiding justice of a mid-level appeals court based in Brooklyn, was formerly an assistant district attorney on Long Island.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins is ready to move on. She said the Senate has fulfilled its constitutional role in the confirmation process, and Hochul needs to begin the process again and find a nominee everyone can agree on.

“The nomination was lost,” Stewart-Cousins said. “And I’m hoping that we can move forward and really work to find the chief judge that is reflective of the majority of what the conference, what New Yorkers, expect in a chief judge.”

Hochul does not appear ready to leave the defeat behind, though.

Speaking on Thursday, she said the vote was unfair because the outcome was predetermined after 14 Democratic senators said in advance that they would not back LaSalle because they viewed him as too conservative, based on some of his rulings. She also said the deck was stacked against LaSalle after the Senate added four more members to the Judiciary Committee, three of whom said they opposed LaSalle.

“I think if you look at the original composition of that committee before it was changed, there were enough votes to go forward,” Hochul said. “You’d have to question whey there was unexpectedly four more votes added to that committee.”

Hochul said she believes that even though the committee rejected LaSalle, the state’s constitution requires that the nominee face a floor vote by all 63 senators.

Former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, a supporter of LaSalle who sat through the entire hearing, agrees with Hochul.

“This matter has to go to the floor of the Senate, by the constitution, and by the enabling legislation,” Lippman said. “There’s no question about it.”

Stewart-Cousins said it should have come as no surprise to anyone that some senators were opposed to the nominee. Twenty Democratic senators wrote Hochul a letter as early as last summer, saying they wanted her to choose someone who was not a former prosecutor and who would help change the direction of the increasingly conservative high court back to the left.

“The conference is looking for someone who would change the trajectory of the court,” Stewart-Cousins said. “And that was stated even before this nominee.”

Stewart-Cousins also said the committee was expanded because more senators were interested in joining it in the wake of recent controversial U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

Hochul has indicated that she might take the matter to court to try to force a full Senate vote. The Buffalo News reported that she is making arrangements to hire outside counsel to help with the effort.

Hochul said she has not yet decided on how to proceed.

“We're certainly weighing all our options,” she said.

Judiciary Committee Chair Brad Hoylman-Sigal said he, like Stewart-Cousins, believes his house has fulfilled its constitutional duty, and he thinks it would be a “travesty” for Hochul to launch a court battle.

“To have a constitutional crisis seems to be not in anyone’s interest,” Hoylman-Sigal said.

Hoylman-Sigal said there’s also the question of which court would be able to consider the case. The Court of Appeals, which often is the arbiter of interpreting the state’s constitution, would have a conflict of interest because the case is about choosing the chief judge.

“There are far more questions than answers,” Hoylman-Sigal said.

The dispute over the chief judge comes as Hochul is preparing to detail her agenda, announced in her State of the State message earlier this month, in her budget proposal. It includes plans to build 800,000 new housing units over the next several years, invest heavily in the mental health care system, and link the state’s minimum wage to the inflation rate.

Hoylman-Sigal, along with the other Democrats in the chamber, said they strongly support those proposals and hope that the fight over the judge doesn’t get in the way of achieving those goals.

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.
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