Liberal Senators Oppose Hochul’s Pick to Lead Top Court

hochul top judge
AP Photo/Joshua Bessex, File

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul was urged Monday to withdraw her chief judge nominee by liberal lawmakers who claim he’s too conservative and would tilt the state’s top court too far to the right.

Hochul nominated Hector D. LaSalle, who is from Brentwood, to lead the state Court of Appeals just before Christmas, saying the veteran judge would focus on “expanding access to justice for New Yorkers.”

If LaSalle is confirmed, he would become the first Latino to lead the seven-member high court and oversee New York’s judicial system.

While top court nominations typically sail through the state Senate, LaSalle quickly drew opposition. Some progressive activists, union officials and Democratic senators claim his judicial record is anti-abortion, anti-labor and anti-due process.

“Now more than ever, we need our Court of Appeals to be the leader in safeguarding our civil liberties, in defending our democracy and protecting the most vulnerable New Yorkers,” state Sen. Kristen Gonzalez of New York City said at a state Capitol news conference.

She urged Hochul, a fellow Democrat, to pull the nomination.

There was no comment Monday from the Hochul administration. The governor said Friday that a review of LaSalle’s cases will show he will be “fair” and “just.”

Others have challenged the portrayal of LaSalle as an archconservative.

Albany Law School Professor Vincent Bonventre wrote in an analysis online that “a careful and somewhat closer look at those cases does not actually show LaSalle to be the ideological conservative that his opponents claim.”

LaSalle has received the support of a number of elected officials. But Gonzalez is among 14 state senators who have publicly opposed the nomination, according to activists. That would mean Democrats in control of the Senate do not have enough votes to approve LaSalle without Republican votes.

With the Senate required to decide on the nomination this month, opponents have been pressing their case. They claim the Court of Appeals should be a counterweight in New York to the conservative U.S. Supreme Court.

LaSalle’s opponents have focused on a small number of midlevel appeals court opinions, most dealing with technical legal issues, rather than big societal questions.

In one, LaSalle was part of a panel of judges that limited the scope of a subpoena issued by New York’s attorney general during an investigation of a “crisis pregnancy center” set up by an anti-abortion group.

The opinion, which LaSalle did not write, upheld the attorney general’s authority to investigate whether the center was engaging in the unlicensed practice of medicine, but said the subpoena had been too broad in the documents it demanded.

In another ruling, a panel of judges including LaSalle declined to dismiss some parts of a defamation case that a company had filed against union officials, saying a state law didn’t necessarily bar the suit if the union leaders slandered the company outside of their roles as labor leaders.

James Mahoney of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers told reporters that Hochul was taking for labor allies for granted.

“She promised us that we were going to have a seat at the table,” Mahoney said. “She put us on the menu.”

Labor opposition is not universal.

John Samuelsen, international president of the Transport Workers Union, said LaSalle deserves a Senate confirmation hearing, so people can hear more about where he stands.

“Let’s get down to the nitty gritty and let everybody make a decision for themselves,” he said in a phone interview.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said there was no hearing scheduled as of Monday.

LaSalle currently serves as a presiding justice of the Second Department, where he led the largest state appellate court in the nation with a budget of about $69 million. He was appointed to that position in 2021 by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Former Chief Judge Janet DiFiore stepped down last summer.

Maysoon Khan contributed. Khan is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative.