Hochul Picks Hector LaSalle for Chief Judge. Progressives Fear Return to Conservative Era.

LaSalle’s leadership could restore the conservative majority that dominated the court under Janet DiFiore.

Sam Mellins   ·   December 22, 2022
Kathy Hochul with previous Chief Judge Janet DiFiore. | Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

On Thursday, Governor Kathy Hochul nominated Hector LaSalle to serve as the next chief of New York’s highest court, a pick that will shape the court and New York’s entire justice system for years to come.

​​“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 announcing his nomination.

LaSalle, a Democrat, is known as one of the most conservative judges on the appeals court that he heads, which hears cases from parts of New York City and its suburbs. Earlier this week, 46 law professors from schools including Columbia, NYU, and Cornell sent Hochul a letter urging her not to pick him, citing his rulings to shield anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy” centers from scrutiny and to allow the corporation now known as Optimum to sue union leaders. The writers warned that LaSalle’s “activist conservative jurisprudence,” would “take our State’s law in the wrong direction.”

But five Hispanic and Latino bar associations rallied in LaSalle’s favor, urging her to choose a Latino chief judge for the first time in New York’s history. LaSalle would be the first non-white person to hold the position.

The state Senate will vote on the nomination soon after it reconvenes on January 4. If they confirm him, LaSalle will begin a 14-year term as chief judge of the seven-member Court of Appeals, which is the final word on all matters of New York state law.

Progressives vowed to organize against LaSalle’s confirmation. They will face steep odds: The Senate has never rejected a governor’s nominee to the Court of Appeals, and an effort to block another conservative nominee, Madeline Singas, failed last year.

But the court has received more public scrutiny over the past year, especially as it has overturned Democrats’ redistricting plans and mirrored the Supreme Court’s rightward turn. At least one prominent senator — Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris — has said he regrets his vote for Singas. (Gianaris declined to comment for this story.)

Senator Brad Hoylman, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said he’s currently undecided on whether LaSalle should be confirmed.

“I think every nominee deserves a fair hearing and certainly a close review by the Senate,” he said. “I will meet with Justice LaSalle, review his background and record and then make my decision accordingly.”

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins also said in a statement that she is not currently for or against confirming LaSalle, as did Senators Andrew Gounardes, Zellnor Myrie, and James Skoufis, all judiciary committee members, and Senator Jessica Ramos.

Eight Democratic senators pledged to vote against LaSalle within twenty-four hours of his nomination being announced. The first three to declare their opposition were Julia Salazar, Jabari Brisport, and senator-elect Kristen Gonzalez, the three members of the chamber who have received endorsements from the Democratic Socialists of America.

Gonzalez, a Democrat from Queens who will take office in January, said that Hochul “had the opportunity to nominate a Chief Judge that prioritizes the needs of vulnerable New Yorkers. Instead she chose one of the most conservative justices on the appellate bench.”

Salazar also told New York Focus that she plans to oppose LaSalle’s confirmation. She wrote on Twitter that she is “Deeply disappointed in the Governor’s nomination of someone with a clear anti-union, fundamentally conservative record.”

Senators Brisport, Samra Brouk, Michelle Hinchey, Robert Jackson, Rachel May and Gustavo Rivera also announced their opposition in statements. Brouk, who represents parts of Rochester and its suburbs, was the first senator from outside of New York City to oppose LaSalle.

But other Democratic Senators voiced support for LaSalle. As a Latino, he’s proud of the judge; he’s happy with the nomination, and he congratulates the governor for the nomination,” said a spokesperson for Senator Luis Sepulveda, a member of the judiciary committee. Senators Kevin Thomas and Monica Martinez also announced their support.

Other senators did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

At least 11 Democrats would likely need to oppose LaSalle to have a chance of stopping his confirmation. If that many Democrats vote no, supporters would need to join forces with Republicans to win a majority vote in the 63-member body — a step that Democratic leadership is often reluctant to take.

LaSalle’s likely elevation to chief judge comes at a critical time for the Court of Appeals. Previous Chief Judge Janet DiFiore steered the court in a markedly conservative direction, leading a bloc of judges that issued right-leaning rulings on topics ranging from police power to workers’ rights to consumer protection.

Some groups expressed concern that LaSalle would continue this trend.

“His decisions make clear that his judicial philosophy is wrong for New York, and that, if confirmed as Chief Judge, he would be a continuation of former Chief Judge DiFiore’s right-wing Court of Appeals,” wrote Peter Martin, director of the progressive activist group Judicial Accountability at the Center for Community Alternatives, in a statement to New York Focus.

Since DiFiore’s departure, the court has had an even split between three of her staunch allies and three judges who often favored more liberal interpretations of New York law. In many cases, LaSalle is likely to wield the swing vote. 

Judges Jenny Rivera and Rowan Wilson, both Cuomo appointees, are the court’s two most liberal judges, and frequently wrote extensive dissents from rulings by DiFiore and her allies. Judge Shirley Troutman, the only sitting Hochul appointee, agreed with DiFiore more often, but has still dissented from her on multiple occasions.

The chief judge is one of the most powerful positions in state government. Beyond leading New York’s top court, they serve as head administrator for the statewide court system, which has a $3 billion annual budget and 16,000 employees. 

Hochul’s statement announcing LaSalle’s nomination also announced that Judge Edwina Richardson-Mendelson, who was also under consideration for the chief judge spot, will become the state’s next chief administrative judge, a position tasked with running day-to-day operations of the entire court system. Lawrence Marks, a Cuomo appointee and longtime courts system administrator, held the role from 2015 until his unexpected retirement in November.

The chief judge’s role as administrator will mean they set policy on issues such as whether tenants facing eviction in New York City get access to legal help. A 2017 city law guaranteed low-income renters the right to a lawyer in eviction cases, free of charge. But the city can’t compel state courts to follow the law, and since the pandemic-era eviction moratorium ended in January, the large majority of tenants in eviction cases have gone unrepresented. City officials, including the Manhattan and Bronx borough presidents, have pushed Acting Chief Judge Anthony Cannataro to slow down eviction cases until tenants can access legal help, but so far he hasn’t done so.

LaSalle previously worked at the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office, and if confirmed, will be the fourth former prosecutor on the seven-member court. Earlier this month, a coalition of over 100 progressive organizations and labor unions sent Hochul a letter asking her not to nominate LaSalle or two other candidates that they viewed as too conservative for the position. 

Since joining the appeals court in 2014, LaSalle has taken a tough-on-crime approach to the law, frequently dissenting from decisions overturning criminal convictions. He has also joined rulings blocking state attempts to investigate anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy centers” and allowing large corporations to sue labor union leaders. 

Lasalle was selected from a shortlist that also included the acting chief judge of the Court of Appeals, another judge on a mid-level state appeals court, two legal academics, a criminal defense lawyer, and Richardson-Mendelson.

Just as notable were the candidates the shortlist didn’t include: The three most liberal judges currently on the Court of Appeals all applied for the chief’s spot, but the 12-person panel that selected the shortlist rejected all of them.

A spokesperson for the panel that selected the shortlist did not respond to New York Focus’s request for comment.

Sam Mellins is senior reporter at New York Focus, which he has been a part of since launch day. His reporting has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Intercept, THE CITY, and The Nation. 
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