New York Gov. Kathy Hochul angered unions as well as advocates for abortion rights and criminal justice with her nomination Thursday of Hector D. LaSalle to be chief judge of the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.
Hochul (D) faced pressure from some lawmakers and advocacy groups to diversify the court by finding a non-prosecutor. The majority of the Court of Appeals judges were former prosecutors, including Associate Judge Shirley Troutman, who Hochul appointed in January 2022.
LaSalle, who currently serves as presiding justice of the New York Supreme Court’s Second Department, has a lengthy tenure in the state court system and earlier worked as a prosecutor in Suffolk County. If confirmed by the state Senate, he would be the first Latino chief judge in state history.
LaSalle’s nomination received pushback from unions even ahead of his nomination. In 2015, he joined a majority ruling allowing a defamation lawsuit by an employer against union leaders. New York’s Court of Appeals would become the last line of defense with the US Supreme Court taking up a case that could allow state-level lawsuits against union leaders.
“Justice Hector LaSalle has unfortunately shown a willingness to put the interests of corporations ahead of workers which is disturbing in a state with a long history of supporting workers’ rights,” said New York State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento.
“Justice LaSalle’s deeply conservative judicial record includes decisions that are anti-abortion, anti-union, and anti-due process,” said Peter Martin, director of judicial accountability at the Center for Community Alternatives, which pushes for community-based alternatives to incarceration.
Martin’s group pointed to a 2017 decision that LaSalle joined that ruled parts of the state attorney general’s investigation into fraudulent medical clinics run by anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers was unconstitutional.
Hochul defended LaSalle’s record at a press briefing Friday, saying she “never wanted to have a political litmus test” as part of the selection process.
“If you actually read those cases that are in question, they have nothing to do with a woman’s right to choose. And on the labor issue, it was a procedural decision to send it down for the trial courts,” Hochul said.
“All these objections will be overcome when the senators look at with an open mind and actually study the nature of those cases, so I’m standing with him. I’m proud of this selection and I encourage everyone to give him the fair hearing that he’s entitled to,” Hochul said.
LaSalle, a former Suffolk County assistant district attorney, was selected to succeed Court of Appeals Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, who stepped down on Aug. 31.
The state Senate, which is lead by a Democratic supermajority, has 30 days to confirm or reject the nomination. The Senate convenes for the 2023 legislative session Jan. 4.
At least two New York state senators—Michelle Hinchey and Rachel May—say they’re likely to vote against LaSalle’s confirmation. “After a careful review of the nominee, I am forced to conclude he would be regressive on issues impacting women’s rights, labor issues, and climate change. I will be a ‘no’ on Judge LaSalle,” May said in a tweet.
Lots of Experience
Hochul’s office compiled an array of plaudits from prominent New Yorkers, including state Attorney General Letitia James (D), state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D), several state senators, and members of Congress. Their comments highlight LaSalle’s extensive tenure in the New York judiciary system.
Supporters applauded LaSalle’s plan, if he’s confirmed, to appoint Judge Edwina G. Richardson-Mendelson to serve as Chief Administrative Judge. Richardson-Mendelson has been the New York Unified Court System’s Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for Justice Initiatives since 2017 and Court of Claims judge.
“She has worked over the course of her career to ensure all New Yorkers are served by our state’s justice system and would be the first African American woman to serve in this role,” Heastie said of Richardson-Mendelson.
Other judges and prosecutors spoke of LaSalle’s fairness and even-handed nature. “I know first-hand his judicial record of thoughtful and balanced decision-making and his collaborative nature. He is beloved and respected by his peers as a person of integrity who values the judiciary and its paramount obligation to dispense justice for all,” said Hon. Rolando T. Acosta, Presiding Justice of the First Department of the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division.
The New York State Bar Association also applauded the nomination. LaSalle “demonstrated a keen ability to build consensus and to increase productivity substantially in one of the busiest appellate courts in the nation,” state Bar Association President Sherry Levin Wallach, referring to his current stint as justice of the Second Department. “He has a great deal of experience on both the trial and appellate bench and has granular knowledge of both the adjudicative and administrative aspects of the job of chief judge.”
The Court of Appeals is composed of six associate judges and a chief judge, each serving 14-year terms. Candidates are selected by the independent state judicial nomination commission, which forwards a list of seven to the governor.
The state court system is one of the largest in the nation, with an approximately $3 billion budget, more than 1,350 state-paid judges, and approximately 15,000 non-judicial court employees. In addition to the state-paid judges, there also are more than 1,800 judges serving in the state’s locally funded town and village justice courts.
Hochul will have to fill another vacancy on the court after Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks retired in November. Since 2013, the court has had significant turnover with unanticipated resignations and deaths leading to two to three new judges a year.
LaSalle’s parents are from Puerto Rico, and he grew up on Long Island. He was the first person in his family to get a college degree, having earned his bachelor’s from Pennsylvania State University in 1990 and his law degree from the University of Michigan Law School in 1993.
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