Hochul’s judge choice exposes Democratic divisions
Joe Mahoney CNHI State Reporter
ALBANIA – The opening days of the 2023 legislative session are being dominated not by bickering over partisan bills, but by a showdown with gubernatorial candidate Kathy Hochul to become New York’s next chief justice.
Hochul’s pick for the vacancy is Hector LaSalle, second department chair 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 will become New York’s first Latino mayor.
In announcing her election last month, Hochul praised LaSalle’s “extraordinary” skills as a jurist, pointing to what she called his “excellent reputation as a consensus builder.”
But not all Senate Democrats share that view, with at least 14 signaling disappointment with the nomination.
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Some of them argue that it was a mistake for Hochul to appoint a candidate with experience as a criminal prosecutor. Other critics say LaSalle has sided with anti-abortion advocates and opponents of organized labor.
Sen. Julia Salazar, D-Brooklyn, the chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Crime and Corrections and a member of the Democratic socialist wing of the majority conference, described her reaction to the nomination as “a resounding no.”
“Deeply disappointed in the governor’s appointment of someone with a clear anti-union, fundamentally conservative record on the bench to be chief justice of the New York State Court of Appeals,” Salazar said after Hochul announced her selection.
However, some judicial associations and Hispanic organizations have rallied behind LaSalle. Several Republican senators, in a case of strange bedfellows, have also warmed to the candidate, setting the stage for LaSalle to win confirmation — but only with the support of the GOP and moderate Democrats who say Hochul was on strong ground. with her selection.
“There are a lot of people who see him as a judge and are looking for him in legal circles,” said George Arzt, a veteran New York Democratic strategist. “To have leftists trying to diminish a very, very good judge makes them look small. It’s ridiculous that these people would try to smear 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 that he once served as a prosecutor.
“Prosecutors have a special obligation to administer justice fairly and impartially, unlike other lawyers who are dedicated only to advancing 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 that speculation about how a judge might rule on certain cases based on previous rulings has often turned out to be vague.
“There is a history of inaccuracies in trying to guess how a judge will rule in the performance of his duties,” he said.
In a move some observers have compared to moving the goalposts while a match is in progress — or in this case after the governor announced her pick — Senate Democrats this week decided to expand the Judiciary Committee by four additional members. leaving the panel with 19 senators.
If LaSalle fails to gather enough support, the nomination would not survive to go to the full Senate for a vote.
Between now and the hearing next week, Hochul’s operatives have their work cut out for them, suggested Gerald Benjamin, former dean of the political science department at SUNY New Paltz.
“When top senators say they can’t vote for a candidate, that’s serious. That doesn’t happen,” Benjamin said.
Indeed, no governor has had a top judicial appointment blocked by the Legislature.
Hochul still has time to try to smooth out the turbulence, Benjamin said. “It can try to create a context where the result would be accepted because it is in the context of a wide range of decisions and it has only just begun,” he said.
An ally of criminal justice reformers, Bronx District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, offered his strong support to the candidate on Thursday.
“After reviewing Judge LaSalle’s decisions and writings, the New York State Bar Association, the New York City Bar Association, the New York State Trial Lawyers Association and every Latino bar association in the state found that LaSalle was 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 get a fair hearing before the Judiciary Committee.
A retired judge who now serves in the Legislature, Assemblyman Angelo Morinello, R-Niagara Falls, said he hopes the fate of the nomination will be determined in an open hearing rather than a social media fray.
“I support the normal process, not having the agenda controlled by social media,” said Morinello.
The next chief justice is likely to have a major influence on the direction of the state’s highest court. Last August, Janet DiFiore left the job, creating the vacancy Hochul is seeking to fill.
DiFIore, appointed by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, was a former Westchester County prosecutor whose conservative views on criminal justice issues were ideologically out of step with many of the progressives who now hold sway in the state Senate.
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