Hector LaSalle is the wrong pick for law students.
With the August resignation of Chief Justice Janet DiFiore from the New York Court of Appeals, Gov. Kathy Hochul had an opportunity to align the state’s highest court with the values of most New Yorkers. It could have rebalanced the court to better reflect a range of professional experiences across the legal profession. Instead, Hochul appointed Judge Hector LaSalle, a judge more in line with the conservative US Supreme Court than with the people of this strong blue state, who value individual liberties and legal protections for all residents. As public interest law students in New York, we hope the state Senate rejects this conservative nominee in favor of a judge with a history of protecting the rights of the underprivileged instead of protecting the privileges of the powerful.
As legal advocacy groups, unions, reproductive justice organizations and others have pointed out, LaSalle has authored or co-authored a number of alarming decisions while serving on the Appellate Division’s Second Judicial Department, the intermediate appellate court that covers ten counties in the lower part of the state. including Brooklyn and Queens. His rulings include the Cablevision decision, which opened organizers to liability for protected union activities, and the Evergreen decision, which blocked the state Attorney General’s investigation into anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers — organizations that mislead pregnant women about their options and act as fronts. for the protection of forced childbirth. As Hochul acknowledged during her last campaign, abortion and labor rights are issues that most New Yorkers strongly support, and LaSalle cannot be trusted to act in our best interests on these occasions.
Beyond the serious issues with LaSalle’s opinions, his appointment also perpetuates a serious lack of professional diversity on New York’s highest court. Prosecutors and corporate lawyers are vastly overrepresented among judges in general, and the Court of Appeals is no exception. Half of the current members of the Court of Appeals are former prosecutors, despite the fact that prosecutors make up only about 14 percent of lawyers in the U.S. As a former prosecutor and corporate lawyer, LaSalle would further that imbalance.
Excluding differing viewpoints from the court has major real-world impacts.
Crowding the courts with prosecutors and corporate lawyers drives students away from careers in public defense, legal aid, and indigent legal services. High salaries and a clear path to the bench for prosecutors and corporate lawyers already make these careers attractive. As students, we see the prestige afforded to corporate lawyers and prosecutors and the increased scrutiny that public interest lawyers receive in judicial confirmations; they are often accused of bias simply for doing constitutionally required jobs. We are constantly thinking about how we will be able to pay off student loans and afford the rising costs of living in public interest careers. We routinely see our peers leave careers in the public interest, and 71 percent make the switch because of student debt. Despite the urgent need for public interest lawyers, superior prospects push students into careers where they will learn to defend the interests of the rich and powerful, no matter how repugnant those interests may be. After students move away from public interest careers, the judicial bias for prosecutors and corporate lawyers then quickly carries these acquired views to the bench. This lack of professional diversity deprives the court of crucial perspectives from areas that expose lawyers to how the law affects ordinary people.
Bringing these perspectives into court is more than a simple box-checking exercise; excluding them has major real-world impacts. Empirically, studies have shown that judges who are former prosecutors and corporate lawyers impose harsher criminal sentences and support employers in discrimination lawsuits more often than other judges. One study found that trials before former prosecutors were more likely to end in conviction and that, on average, former prosecutors sentenced convicted defendants to sixteen months longer in prison than former public defenders. In another study of granting summary judgment motions, which are purely matters of law, prosecutors were 56 percent less likely to find for workers over employers in employment disputes than non-prosecutors.
Anecdotally, judges themselves have acknowledged the influence that judges from different professional backgrounds have on their deliberations; U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan wrote that Justice Thurgood Marshall’s experience as a civil rights lawyer gave him “firsthand knowledge of the law’s failure to deliver the promised protection” and that this perspective influenced him Brennan’s own thinking.
Hochul’s nominations have been conservative even when compared to mainstream Democrats. In his nominations, President Joe Biden has emphasized both racial and gender diversity, as well as professional diversity: More than half of his nominees so far have been lawyers working in public interest areas such as public defense, civil rights , consumer protection, labor, etc. . For example, Biden’s nominees for the federal district court in New York have included Natasha Merle of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Jessica Clarke of the New York Attorney General’s civil rights office, Nina Morrison of the Innocence Project, and Dale Ho by the ACLU. Instead of working toward similar progress in New York State, the governor has simply elevated another former prosecutor.
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As law students pursuing careers representing individuals against the powerful, we want to see a chief justice who has a history of protecting the rights of ordinary people and who decides cases without professional corporate and prosecutorial bias. What we have seen from LaSalle’s record, much like the conservative court under DiFiore, is someone who is more interested in protecting the interests of the rich and powerful than in ensuring that true justice is served in this state. The legal profession has a long way to go before public interest lawyers are properly represented in court. The New York Senate could take an important step in the right direction by rejecting Hochul’s nominee.