The Democratic-led New York Senate delivered a historic defeat to Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul on Wednesday when it voted 39-20 to reject Hector LaSalle, her nominee to lead the state’s highest court.
Hochul stuck with LaSalle even after progressives raised serious alarms over his hostility toward criminal defendants, labor unions, and especially reproductive rights: A group of law professors also pointed to a 2017 decision LaSalle signed on to that helped shield a network of so-called "crisis pregnancy centers" (which try to dissuade women from getting abortions) from an investigation by the state attorney general.
The stakes were especially high because the seven-member top court, known as the Court of Appeals, has for several years been in the grips of a reactionary four-judge majority that has ruled against victims of police misconduct, workers seeking compensation for injuries on the job, and tenants who'd been overcharged by their landlords. Most notoriously, this quartet—all appointed by disgraced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo—struck down new congressional and legislative maps passed by Democratic lawmakers last year on extremely questionable grounds and ordered that a Republican judge in upstate New York redraw them.
The chief justice’s post became vacant last year when conservative Janet DiFiore unexpectedly resigned, which gave Hochul a chance to reshape the court―a chance she very much did not take. In New York the governor is required to pick from a list of seven court nominees submitted by the Commission on Judicial Nominations, and The Daily Beast reported last month that the one name that labor groups objected to was LeSalle’s.
The governor went ahead and chose him anyway and stuck with him over intense opposition, a move one former lawmaker called “the Cuomo playbook without the Cuomo power.” This person suggested that Hochul, who just won an unexpectedly tight battle for a full term last year, was swayed by major business donors and power players like Luis Miranda Jr., a high-powered consultant and the father of Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. “It’s all part of the same thing, he uses his son’s fame to get entry and access for horrible companies, and predatory companies toward our communities,” said this source.
Hochul responded to fears about LeSalle’s ideology by emphasizing that he would be the Court of Appeal’s first Latino head. She even used a Martin Luther King Day event to declare, “Listen to the man. Don't judge him until you know and understand, open-minded ... all those ways that you'd want to be treated.” One of his few Democratic allies in the state Senate, Luis Sepúlveda, also argued, “To have the first Latino and Puerto Rican nominated, and to have his record distorted the way it’s been distorted, I think is unfair.”
LaSalle had some other prominent Democrats in his corner including House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and fellow Reps. Nydia Velázquez and Adriano Espaillat. But the state Senate Judiciary Committee was not persuaded by their support or LaSalle’s insistence that his record had been distorted, because it voted last month against advancing his nomination.
Hochul threatened to take legal action to force the full chamber vote on him, while Republicans, who unanimously supported LaSalle, last week filed their own lawsuit to require a full vote. Law professor Quinn Yeargain argued that, despite Hochul and the GOP’s protestations, “There is no plausible argument that the text of the New York Constitution itself requires the full Senate to vote on Judge LaSalle’s nomination—none.”
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, though, said Wednesday just before the vote that, while she agreed the Judiciary Committee had the power to block LeSalle, the matter was “an ongoing distraction” that needed to be resolved. The New York Times also wrote that Democrats feared that, if this matter dragged out further, it could prove to be a costly distraction as the state government works on a budget and might “heighten the risk that a court would rule that they had acted unconstitutionally.”
Hochul and the GOP unexpectedly got the floor vote they wanted Wednesday, but it did not end well for them. The chamber overwhelmingly voted to torpedo LeSalle’s nomination, as just one Democrat who was present for that vote, state Sen. Monica Martinez, sided with all the Republicans and supported him. (Sepúlveda and Kevin Thomas, who both backed the nominee last month on the Judiciary Committee, were absent.)
This is the first time the full chamber has voted to reject the governor’s pick for the Court of Appeals since New York’s chief executive gained the power to nominate them in the 1970s. (Candidates for the state’s highest court previously ran in statewide elections.) Hochul, though, tried to salvage some small win from the debacle, saying, “This vote is an important victory for the Constitution. But it was not a vote on the merits of Justice LaSalle, who is an overwhelmingly qualified and talented jurist.” The Commission on Judicial Nominations will now submit a new seven-person list to Hochul.