The New York Senate dealt a major blow to Governor Kathy Hochul on Wednesday by rejecting her nominee for the state’s chief judge, Hector LaSalle. This was an extraordinary defeat for the top Democrat in the state, delivered by members of her own party.
The vote to reject Judge LaSalle came after opposition from liberals, who were demanding that Hochul nominate a judge with a more progressive record. LaSalle’s decisions as a judge on a mid-level appeals court were also called into question.
Supporters of LaSalle argued that he was being unfairly targeted by the left, and that his judicial opinions were being misconstrued. Hochul described LaSalle as “an overwhelmingly qualified and talented jurist,” but promised to make a new nomination.
The Senate’s initial decision appeared to be that LaSalle would not even receive a vote. However, its leaders reversed course after a lawsuit was filed by a Republican demanding a full vote in the chamber.
Senate leaders insisted they had fulfilled their legal duty with a panel’s vote last month rejecting LaSalle, but they said they went ahead with a full floor vote to remove an unwanted distraction as they negotiate a $227 billion budget with the governor.
With LaSalle present in the gallery, the Senate rejected his nomination by a vote of 20-39, with Democrats overwhelmingly voting against LaSalle. The Senate Judiciary Committee had voted earlier in the day to consider the judge’s nomination for a second time, this time sending it to the full Senate.
The lawsuit filed last week by the ranking Republican on the committee, Senator Anthony Palumbo, claims that the state constitution does not give the panel the final say. The lawsuit sought to force a floor vote on the judge.
Palumbo accused Democrats of gamesmanship in trying to render the court case moot. He said he would continue with the lawsuit, which was scheduled to be argued on Friday. He later stated his hope that the lawsuit would set a court precedent that “regardless of what party is in power, nominations need to go to the floor.”
LaSalle, who presides over one of four state appellate districts, was chosen by Hochul to become the first Latino to lead the seven-member high court. However, his record as an appellate judge was deemed too conservative by progressive activists, labor leaders, and liberal senators, who claimed that he was not fit for such an influential position. Supporters of LaSalle, on the other hand, accused his critics of unfairly characterizing his views based on a handful of cases in order to usher in a more liberal judge.
The next nominee will be a crucial choice, given the role of the chief judge in overseeing the state’s judicial system. The Senate Majority Leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, said that she had spoken with Governor Hochul before the vote and that Democrats were committed to working with her on the next nominee.
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