ALBANY — New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s nominee to head the state’s highest court was rejected by a state Senate panel on Wednesday, in a high-profile blow to the governor after weeks of criticism of the judge’s record from progressive activists and union officials.
Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee voted not to refer Hector LaSalle’s appeals court nomination to the full Senate after questioning him for more than four hours. Most Hochul Democrats voted against LaSalle.
“The candidate was thoughtful, engaging and responsive,” said Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal, who chairs the Judiciary Committee. “But I believe that there are questions that remain unanswered.”
The governor nominated LaSalle just before Christmas in hopes that he would become the first Latino to head the seven-member Supreme Court and oversee New York’s judicial system. The state Senate routinely approves such nominees, but Hochul’s election ran into trouble after a vocal coalition of opponents claimed LaSalle’s court record was overly conservative.
Democratic senators at the hearing said they were concerned that the judge’s record showed he preferred prosecutors’ positions to civil rights, testing him on individual decisions they deemed unfair to workers and unsupportive of reproductive health considered rights. Critics included a number of Senate Democrats, creating inner-party conflict as state spending and policy negotiations heat up.
Hochul called the Senate hearing unfair and said she believes the state constitution requires action by the entire Senate, not just the committee.
“Judge LaSalle has shown exactly why he is the right person for this role – because of his extensive experience, legal temperament and integrity.” Hochul said in a prepared statement.
LaSalle presented himself as a product of humble backgrounds, a supporter of women’s rights and unions, and a conscientious judge.
“In each of these positions I have brought and will continue to bring my lived experience, my experience as a person of color growing up in a working-class community.” LaSalle told the senators.
LaSalle currently serves as chairman of the Second Department, where he oversees the nation’s largest state appellate court, with a budget of approximately $69 million. He was appointed to the position by the then governor in 2021. Andrew Cuomo.
His opponents have focused on a small number of opinions from mid-level appellate courts, most of which deal with technical legal issues rather than broader societal issues.
LaSalle told senators he bases his decisions on case law. Senators who supported him accused critics of case-picking to make it appear that he was an arch-conservative.
“For a moment, reading your decisions and particularly listening to your opening speech, I thought I was in the wrong room. You don’t come across as a right-wing nutcase,” said Republican Senator Andrew Lanza.
Hoylman-Sigal said concerns about LaSalle’s file needed to be properly voiced in the face of an increasingly conservative US Supreme Court.
“If some people think we’re setting a high standard at this hearing, then we’re doing it because we have to.” said Hoylman-Sigal at the hearing. “The stakes are just too high.”
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