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Hochul's choice for the next chief judge of New York state faces strong headwinds

Sen. Kristen Gonzalez is among those who spoke out against Gov. Kathy Hochul's choice for chief judge at a rally at the State Capitol on Jan. 9, 2023.
Karen DeWitt
New York State Public Radio
Sen. Kristen Gonzalez is among those who spoke out against Gov. Kathy Hochul's choice for chief judge at a rally at the State Capitol on Jan. 9, 2023.

Groups opposed to Gov. Kathy Hochul’s choice of Hector LaSalle for the next chief judge came to the Capitol on Monday to call on her to withdraw his name, saying he is too conservative to lead the courts.

Hochul, though, shows no signs of backing down.

Representatives from unions, reproductive rights groups and criminal justice organizations stepped up the pressure on Monday. Chanting “No to LaSalle!,” they said he is the wrong choice for chief judge, based on some of his past opinions that they say side against labor, the right to due process, and abortion rights.

Sen. Kristen Gonzalez is among the 14 Democratic senators who have already come out against LaSalle.

“The Court of Appeals is simply too important to be led by someone who is not wholly committed to defending the rights of women and workers,” Gonzalez said. “Especially the most marginalized.”

The opposition among members of her own party means that Hochul does not have enough Democratic votes in the state Senate for LaSalle to be confirmed; she would need help from minority-party Republicans.

Among the other Democratic opponents is Deputy Senate Majority Leader Michael Gianaris. Speaking on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show” on Jan. 5, Gianaris said it’s not only left-leaning senators who have concerns. He said moderate Democrats also have reservations.

Gianaris said former Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, who resigned last summer, was not a good administrator of the state’s vast court system, and he wants to see the court take a new direction.

“We’re not spoiling for a fight with the governor. We are anxious to work with her,” Gianaris said. “But … we can’t in good conscience vote to confirm a nominee who we think would not improve the Court of Appeals here in New York.”

New York State Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins speaks Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, at the State Capitol.
Karen DeWitt
New York State Public Radio
New York State Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins speaks Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, at the State Capitol.

Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins was asked whether, given the opposition, Hochul should withdraw LaSalle’s name from consideration and choose someone else.

“That would clearly be easier,” Stewart-Cousins said. “But ... here we are.”

Stewart-Cousins said the opposition to LaSalle should not have come as a surprise to Hochul. She said 20 Democratic senators wrote a letter to the governor last August when DiFiore resigned, asking that the governor appoint a nominee who had a background other than in prosecution.

The Senate on Monday also revealed who was added to its Judiciary Committee, increasing it from 15 to 19 members. The larger committee includes new senators who have already expressed opposition to LaSalle. That led Republicans to accuse the Democrats of stacking the committee, something they denied. The committee has the power to block LaSalle’s nomination from coming to the Senate floor.

Among the new committee members are Democrats Shelly Mayer, Jessica Ramos and Toby Stavisky, all of whom have expressed doubts about LaSalle.

Hochul, speaking earlier in the month at a Three Kings Day event, said she won’t withdraw LaSalle’s name and that she finds the expansion of the Senate Judiciary Committee “unprecedented.”

She said LaSalle has an “exceptional” record.

“He’ll be the person that will bring a fractured court together. He’ll be fair. He’ll be just,” said Hochul, who added she believes a review of LaSalle’s 5,000 cases will “reveal that.”

“He’ll go to the committee, even if it’s stacked,” Hochul said.

Senator Rob Ortt speaks at a podium.
Karen DeWitt
New York State Public Radio
Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt, joined by other Republican state senators, speaks at the State Capitol on Jan. 9, 2023.

Hochul, who is a supporter of abortion rights and who has had a good relationship with labor unions, said she wants the confirmation process to continue. She said she also believes LaSalle is best qualified to jump-start a court system that nearly ground to a halt during the pandemic, which she believes contributed to the state’s crime problem.

If the nomination does make it out of the Judiciary Committee and reach the floor, Hochul would need votes from Republicans for LaSalle to be confirmed.

Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt said he’s reached out to Hochul to say that he and his GOP colleagues are willing to keep an open mind on the nomination.

He urged the governor to push back against what he called the “radical left” of her party. But he said that Hochul has not responded.

“If she’s not willing to show the courage to get up there and fight for her nominee, which may include working across the aisle, then I don’t think that bodes well for a lot of other issues this session,” Ortt said.

A date for a hearing on LaSalle’s nomination has not yet been set.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.