New York Gov. Kathy Hochul on Thursday selected Hector LaSalle to become chief judge of the state Court of Appeals, a key position that would make him the state’s top jurist and put him in charge of the entire court system — if the Senate confirms his nomination.
LaSalle, a Long Island native who is the presiding justice of the Appellate Division’s Second Department, would succeed former Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, who abruptly resigned earlier this year in the middle of her term.
The son of Puerto Rican parents, LaSalle would be the first Latino to serve as chief judge, according to Hochul’s office.
He will now face a confirmation process in the state Senate, where Democrats have vowed to heavily scrutinize Hochul’s pick for the position after growing dissatisfied with the direction of the Court of Appeals — the state’s top court — in recent years.
“New York’s Court of Appeals has a long history as a beacon of justice, and Judge LaSalle is an outstanding jurist in that tradition. He has the skills, experience and intellect to ensure that our highest court is seen as a leader across the country,” Hochul said in a statement.
LaSalle has been a judge since 2009, when he became a state Supreme Court justice in Suffolk County on Long Island.
Then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo elevated LaSalle to the Appellate Division, the state’s midlevel appeals court, in 2014, before making him presiding justice of the division’s Second Department (which includes Brooklyn, Queens and the New York City suburbs) in 2021.
Prior to that, LaSalle was a deputy state attorney general and a prosecutor in the Suffolk County district attorney’s office.
“I am committed to leading the court with integrity and fairness, upholding justice, and protecting the rights of New Yorkers,” LaSalle said in a statement.
LaSalle’s history as a prosecutor is likely to draw criticism from progressives, many of whom have long been calling for the court to have more representation from judges who previously worked as civil-rights attorneys or public defenders.
His confirmation in the Democrat-dominated Senate is not a given, despite his nomination by a Democratic governor.
Several top senators — including Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris (D-Queens) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) — have called for a philosophical reset of the Court of Appeals.
In recent years, DiFiore was part of a bloc of four judges on the seven-judge court that often banded together on moderate-to-conservative decisions.
Senate Democrats were particularly incensed by the Court of Appeals’ decision earlier this year to invalidate the state’s new congressional and state Senate lines — which resulted in new, court-drawn maps that helped make Republicans more competitive in several races and helped tip the balance of the House of Representatives.
Hoylman told reporters Thursday that his committee will give LaSalle’s nomination a careful review.
“This being the highest judicial officer in the state of New York, this is a high bar that we’re going to require of this nomination, and we will be thoroughly reviewing his record, his opinions, and his vision for New York state’s court system,” Hoylman said at the Capitol.
Confirmation hearings have not yet been scheduled.
Labor unions, key Democratic allies in New York, are also likely to oppose Hochul’s pick.
The Communications Workers of America District 1 came out in opposition to LaSalle — who was one of seven finalists for the job selected by a nominating commission — just two days ago. The union took issue with LaSalle signing on to a 2015 decision that went against the union, which made it easier for companies to sue unions and labor leaders in certain situations.
“The Communications Workers of America, along with many of our union allies, would condemn the appointment of Justice Hector LaSalle to Chief Judge, given his blatant anti-union stance that directly contradicts the rights of New York’s workers to organize,” CWA District 1 Vice President Dennis Trainor said in a statement on Tuesday.
As part of his nomination, LaSalle announced his intention to appoint Edwina Richardson-Mendelson to the position of chief administrative judge, a key role that oversees the day-to-day activity of the judicial branch. Richardson-Mendelson is currently head of the court system’s Office of Justice Initiatives.
Hochul was required to nominate a new chief judge by Friday after DiFiore, a Cuomo appointee, resigned at the end of August.
She announced the nomination on the same day the Legislature was at the Capitol for a special session to pass a bill raising the base pay for legislators to $142,000 from the current $110,000 — a measure that she will have to sign to bring into effect.
Hoylman said he doesn’t see any implicit message in Hochul announcing the nomination shortly before lawmakers voted on the pay-raise measure.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “Look, I’m sure that the governor knows that we have to do our job as she does hers. That’s why I’m walking into this nomination saying that I will review this nominee’s qualifications thoroughly.”