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Lawmakers block Hochul pick for New York’s top judge

The vote represents a firm rebuke from progressive Democrats, with most votes for the governor's moderate pick coming from Republicans.

ALBANY (CN) — New York’s Senate Judiciary Committee rejected a moderate nominee for chief judge of the state’s highest court in a hairsplitting 10-9 vote on Wednesday.

Governor Kathy Hochul had tapped Hector LaSalle for the job after Chief Judge Janet DiFiore abruptly retired last year.

All 10 votes against LaSalle came from Democrats. Only two Democratic senators, Luis Sepulveda of the Bronx and Kevin Thomas of Long Island, voted to advance LaSalle’s nomination to a full floor vote. The 13th Democrat on the panel, Senator Jamaal Bailey of Mt. Vernon and the Bronx, joined all six of the committee’s Republicans in voting to advance LaSalle without recommendation.

A coalition of Democratic senators, progressive activists and union officials previously labeled Hochul’s nominee “unacceptable” and opposed his nomination based on LaSalle‘s conservative-leaning judicial record, which they view as anti-abortion, anti-labor and anti-due process.

“We need a Chief Judge who will stand up for defendants, workers, immigrants & women,” Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal, the Democratic chair of the Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday. “But first and foremost, we need someone to unify our highest court. This nominee isn’t that person.”

Hochul responded after the vote that the committee’s hearing had been thorough but not fair, “because the outcome was predetermined.”

“Several senators stated how they were going to vote before the hearing even began — including those who were recently given seats on the newly expanded Judiciary Committee,” Hochul said in a statement. “While the committee plays a role, we believe the Constitution requires action by the full Senate."

The governor doubled down on her nomination of LaSalle, insisting that his handling of the committee’s grilling on Wednesday “demonstrated exactly why he is the right person for this role — because of his extensive experience, judicial temperament and integrity.”

"Today, New Yorkers had the opportunity to hear directly from Judge LaSalle, and what they heard was an affirmation of his commitment to fairness and justice above all else,” she said. “He also shared his personal background and views, including his deeply held support for organized labor and unequivocal belief in the right to an abortion.”

The Court of Appeals, New York State’s highest court, is composed of a chief judge and six associate judges, each appointed to a 14-year term.

LaSalle’s rejection marks the first of its kind for a chief judge nominee in New York since the state adopted the current system in which the governor nominates candidates who must be approved by the Senate. Up until 1974, judges had been elected to the top court.

Hochul announced her nomination of LaSalle, presiding justice of New York Supreme Court's Second Department, shortly before Christmas last year, endorsing his focus on “expanding access to justice for New Yorkers.”

If LaSalle was confirmed, he would have become the first Puerto Rican and first Latino to lead the seven-member high court and oversee New York’s judicial system.

Hochul’s announcement drew immediate opposition from liberal lawmakers who claimed that LaSalle's record is too conservative and his nomination should be withdrawn.

 “Now more than ever, we need our Court of Appeals to be the leader in safeguarding our civil liberties, in defending our democracy and protecting the most vulnerable New Yorkers,” state Senator Kristen Gonzalez of New York City said at a recent state Capitol news conference. She urged Hochul, a fellow Democrat, to pull the nomination.

Peter Martin, director of Judicial Accountability at Center for Community Alternatives, applauded the committee’s rejection of LaSalle. 

“Justice Hector LaSalle’s record made clear to hundreds of labor unions, reproductive rights organizations, civil rights groups, community-based organizations, State Senators, and everyday New Yorkers that he is the wrong choice for our state,” Martin said in a statement. “We thank the Senate for rejecting this nomination and we call on Governor Hochul, as we have for months, to put forward a nominee for Chief Judge who will stand up for the rights of marginalized New Yorkers and lead the court New York deserves.”

Jake Faleschini, legal director for the Alliance for Justice Action Campaign, similarly commended the panel for rebuffing Hochul’s pick.

“The senators did the right thing today in rejecting Hector LaSalle’s nomination to the New York Court of Appeals. His anti-worker, anti-abortion, and anti-criminal justice record proved disqualifying,” he said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “New Yorkers deserve better than a judge with such a backwards perspective. They deserve a Court that is committed to protecting civil rights and upholding equal justice for all. “

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