Hochul mulls suit against state Senate after panel overwhelmingly rejects her Chief Judge nominee

Governor Kathy Hochul rallying with Latino lawmakers before state Senate hearing on Judge Hector LaSalle. Saturday, Jan. 14, 2022.
Don Pollard/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

Governor Kathy Hochul is keeping her cards close to her chest a day after her nominee for the state’s Chief Judge was shot-down by the state Senate Judiciary Committee.

The governor wouldn’t say whether she plans to take further action forcing lawmakers to take a floor vote on her nominee, Judge Hector LaSalle, who garnered ‘yes’ votes from just two members of the 19-person state Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 18. That includes the possibility of Hochul taking legal action against leaders in Albany’s upper chamber.

“We’re certainly weighing all of our options,” Hochul told reporters following an unrelated press conference in East Harlem Thursday afternoon.

“I think yesterday was an opportunity for all New Yorkers to listen to an exceptionally qualified jurist who shares the values of New Yorkers,” she continued. He’s “pro-choice, pro-labor, pro-LGBTQ. We have a chance to see, also, what shapes his decisions, based on his many years of experience running the largest appellate court in the country. So I thought he did an extraordinary job. And we’re certainly looking at all of our options.”

Governor Hochul’s Chief Judge nominee, Hector LaSalle, was decisively rejected Wednesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee in Albany.Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

The Judiciary Committee — made up of 13 Democrats and six Republicans — voted against advancing LaSalle’s nomination to the Senate floor following a marathon five-hour hearing, where lawmakers grilled the justice over his past rulings on subjects like abortion access, the rights of organized labor and criminal defense. 

Democratic state Senators Luis Sepulveda (Bronx) and Kevin Thomas (Nassau County) were the only senators who voted in favor of LaSalle’s nomination; 10 other Democrats voted against. Their Democratic colleague Jamal Bailey (Bronx) and the committee’s six Republicans declined to say where they landed on LaSalle and said he should face a full-Senate vote.

Hochul’s office has maintained that the state Constitution states the full Senate must vote on a nomination, not just the Judiciary Committee, and has floated the possibility of taking legal action against the upper chamber to compel a floor vote. Specifically, her team points to language in the constitution that says the governor appoints judges with the “advice and consent of the Senate,” which they interpret to mean the full Senate.

However, top Senate Democrats such as Majority Leader Andrea Stewert-Cousins (Yonkers) and Judiciary Committee Chair Brad Hoylman-Sigal (Manhattan), have treated the committee’s vote as final and said it’s time to move on.

During an interview on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show Thursday morning, Hoylman-Sigal said he “strongly disagree[s]” with Hochul’s team’s reading of the state constitution.

“There’s another part of the state constitution, where it states that the Assembly and the Senate set their own rules,” Hoylman-Sigal said. “Brian, I think your listeners know that legislatures work through committees. That’s something we learn in grade school, that the work we do is based on the committees’ recommendation. Otherwise we’d have every bill and every nominee going directly to the floor of our respective chambers. And that’s not how it works and that’s not the rules that we have in our constitution.”

State Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal.Photo courtesy of NYS Senate Media Services

LaSalle was nominated by Hochul late last year to fill a vacancy at the top of the New York State Court of Appeals, after the high court’s last lead judge, Janet DiFiore, suddenly stepped down from the post last summer.

Almost immediately after Hochul announced his nomination, LaSalle received significant backlash from left-leaning state lawmakers, criminal justice advocates and organized labor over a handful of decisions he signed onto during his tenure as the presiding justice of the State Supreme Court’s 2nd Appellate Division. Before the hearing, 14 state senators indicated they would give him a thumbs down were his nomination to make it to the floor.

Meanwhile, LaSalle’s defenders, including Hochul and the judge himself, have said he’s been unfairly maligned over “cherry-picked” cases and subjected to pre-judgement before getting a hearing. They’ve also pointed to the historic nature of his nomination, as he would’ve been the first Latino to lead the state’s high court.

“He is a source of great pride to us. Not because he’s Latino only, but because he’s the best candidate for this position,” Sepulveda said, during the hearing.

Hochul, when asked by amNewYork Metro if filing a suit against the legislature could poison her relationship with Albany lawmakers — as she heads into a budget cycle where she’ll need they’re help to accomplish her ambitious plans for housing and mental health — again dodged and pointed to her common goals with state lawmakers.

“I did not say what course we’re taking, I just said we’re weighing all of our options,” Hochul said. “But I put forth an ambitious plan for the people of New York. And I believe that there’s a lot of common interest between the executive and the legislative branch. More affordable housing, safer streets. funding for mental health, moving ahead on some major infrastructure projects, tying the minimum wage to inflation. So, we have a lot of shared priorities and so nothing like this could detract from that.”

But political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said it’s past time Hochul took a different approach and start playing hard ball with the legislature, whether that means filing a suit or flexing her political muscle in upcoming state budget negotiations.

“The governor can take a shot in the jaw and not fight back,” Sheinkopf said. “Because once they crack your jaw, they’ll crack the rest of you.”

“The governor still has a lot of power,” he added. “There are a lot of people who maybe shouldn’t get road projects in their districts. She still controls the [state Department of Transportation] right? In the budget, that’s where her real power is. In other words, put a weight in that nice glove, let them know when you shake their hand, that it’s forceful.”