Hector LaSalle makes his case for NY chief judge


Gov. Kathy Hochul’s pick for New York’s top judge said he personally supports abortion rights and labor unions, pushing back against critics who have labeled him as a conservative who is unfit for the state’s top court.

Hector LaSalle, Hochul’s nominee, addressed the Senate Judiciary Committee in public for the first time Wednesday during a hearing on his pending nomination, which Democratic state senators are threatening to reject despite LaSalle being a Democratic judge nominated by a Democratic governor.

In a 10-minute opening statement, LaSalle highlighted his family’s Puerto Rican roots, which would make him the first Latino to serve as chief judge of the Court of Appeals. His rise to the post would also make him not only the head of the state’s top court but also the entire judicial branch. He directly addressed criticism from progressive Democrats and some labor unions, who say his history as a prosecutor and his subsequent judicial record should be disqualifying.

The hearing began at 10 a.m. and is expected to last well into the afternoon, at which point the committee will vote whether to advance the nomination to a full Senate vote. The vote is expected to be extraordinarily close, with LaSalle needing votes from 10 of the 19 committee members to continue.

“Like every judge, I know that not everyone agrees with every ruling, but I can promise you that in every case, I have sought and will continue to seek to give everyone a fair shake, to listen to arguments carefully, to do my best to apply the law to the facts before us, and to work with my colleagues to reach a fair and just result,” LaSalle told the committee.

LaSalle is the current presiding justice of the state Appellate Division’s Second Department, a sprawling region that includes Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, Long Island and much of the Hudson Valley.

His nomination has been in peril from the moment Hochul announced her selection in late December.

Immediately following the announcement, the Communications Workers of America came out in opposition to LaSalle, citing his decision to sign on to a 2015 decision that allowed Cablevision to proceed with a defamation case to proceed against union leaders because the company claimed the leaders were acting in their personal capacity.

Some abortion rights groups took issue with a separate decision in which LaSalle sided with a chain of anti-abortion pregnancy centers, which limited former state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s subpoena seeking a broad array of information about the facilities.

Progressive-leaning senators, meanwhile, also took issue with LaSalle’s prior work as a prosecutor in Suffolk County, having long pushed for governors to appoint more defense or civil rights attorneys to the bench. They’ve questioned whether he would solidify a moderate-to-conservative bloc on the Court of Appeals.

But Hochul has steadfastly stood behind LaSalle, calling him the best person for the job and accusing his critics of intentionally distorting his record. LaSalle also has support from many — but not all — leaders of the Latino community, particularly in the Bronx. Many of them traveled to Albany on Wednesday to urge senators to support his nomination.

It all set up a scenario Wednesday in which Senate Democrats served as antagonists, asking LaSalle — their fellow Democrat — pointed and aggressive questions about his judicial record and philosophy.

“My colleagues and I take this duty to represent the people’s voice as a check and balance in this process, and as an independent branch of government, extremely seriously,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Brad Hoylman-Sigal told LaSalle. “There have been serious concerns raised about the nominee’s record on upholding New York’s laws defending reproductive choice, discrimination, immigration and protecting domestic violence victims.”

Republicans, meanwhile, struck a far softer tone, suggesting Democrats were trying to politicize the judiciary.

“You don’t come across as a right-wing conservative nut,” said Staten Island Sen. Andrew Lanza, a Republican.

During Wednesday’s hearing, LaSalle said the way he’s been portrayed by his critics is unrecognizable to him and his beliefs. While he was careful not to prejudge any cases that may come before him in the future, LaSalle repeatedly said he personally supports a woman’s right to get an abortion and spoke highly of labor unions and their right to organize.

“Unions protect the rights of working people and offer a vital path to the middle class. We must protect the right to organize to ensure that our unions can thrive,” LaSalle told the committee. “This is what I believe, and if that is different from what you have heard or read, I am happy now to set the record straight.”

The battle over LaSalle’s nomination could end up in court.

If the Senate Judiciary Committee rejects him on Wednesday, Senate Democrats believe that would mark the end of the road for his nomination. But Hochul and LaSalle’s allies claim the state constitution requires a vote of the full Senate.

So far, Hochul has not said whether she would be willing to sue the Senate to make her case.

“We have, of course, been consulting with various experts on the process, but that does not mean we are set on any particular course of action,” said Julie Wood, Hochul’s communications director.

The story will be updated throughout the day.


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