The New York Senate, in an unprecedented move, on Wednesday discarded Gov. Kathy Hochul’s chief judge nominee to the state’s highest court in a 20-39 vote, restarting the judicial nomination process.
The full floor vote ends a stalemate between Hochul and Senate Democrats over how to proceed after the Senate Judiciary Committee last month rejected the elevation of Hector D. LaSalle to chief judge on the Court of Appeals.
The committee vote was an inauspicious setback for Hochul early in her first full term as governor. She still must negotiate the state budget with Albany lawmakers by March 31. The Senate majority leader said she allowed the full floor vote, despite disagreeing that it was needed, to get past the impasse and begin budget negotiations in earnest.
Democratic leaders said the committee’s rejection should have ended the matter, but Hochul maintained the state Constitution requires a nominee to go before the full 63-member Senate where Democrats hold a supermajority.
LaSalle needed 32 votes, a majority of the chamber, to be confirmed. Many Democrats voted against him, citing his conservative record, including cases on organized labor and abortion.
“We’re asking for judges who apply the law and understand the context of what the implication of a decision means for millions of New Yorkers,” state Sen. Shelley Mayer (D) said voting against LaSalle.
“Our system of justice is for everyone,” she said. “I am looking for a chief judge who has a vision of how to improve our court system.”
After an official rejection letter is sent to the Court of Appeals, the court clerk will notify the nominating commission to begin its candidate search—which could take up to 120 days. The commission then sends a list of seven candidates to the governor for her consideration.
The Court of Appeals is New York’s highest court, which at full strength has a chief judge and six associate judges, each serving 14-year terms. The court currently has a 3-3 partisan deadlock.
“This vote is an important victory for the Constitution,” Hochul said in a statement Wednesday. “But it was not a vote on the merits of Justice LaSalle, who is an overwhelmingly qualified and talented jurist.” Hochul said she will work toward making a new chief judge nomination. “I remain committed to selecting a qualified candidate to lead the court and deliver justice,” she said.
The chief judge also oversees the state court system, which is one of the largest in the nation with a budget of about $3 billion.
The New York judge selection process has become more politicized than in prior years when the state Senate served as more of a ceremonial rubber stamp for the governor’s judicial appointments.
Politicians were reminded of the importance of judicial choices last year when a state redistricting ruling favored the position of Republicans and two US Supreme Court decisions overturned abortion precedent and a New York law limiting who could carry a handgun in public combined.
Democrats and Republicans sparred for more than an hour over whether to confirm LaSalle.
State Sen. Sean Ryan (D), who voted against the nominee, cited prior cases describing LaSalle as someone with an “excessively narrow vision of the law.”
“New York State needs a chief judge who has a broad vision of the law, has a broad vision of how law affects society, and knows that the decisions of those courts affect everybody in society,” he said.
LaSalle, who is currently presiding justice of the Appellate Division of the Second Judicial Department, would have been the state’s first Latino chief judge.
State Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R) voted in favor of LaSalle, saying he has an “impeccable record.”
“He is an incredible jurist who calls balls and strikes,” Palumbo said, adding that Democrats misrepresented LaSalle’s record.
‘We Have a State to Run’
The vote comes as Senate Democrats face a lawsuit filed by Palumbo, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who asked the court to require a floor vote on the nomination. Oral arguments in the case are currently slated for 2 p.m. Friday in state Supreme Court in Suffolk County.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in a statement Wednesday said her conference agreed to a full floor vote so the issue wouldn’t distract from discussions over the proposed $227 billion budget.
“We have a state to run,” she said. “Our highest court has no appointed Chief Judge, and we need the court system to function. This court case, if allowed to continue, would’ve dragged on for months and stymied our judicial system. It’s time to put this matter to rest.”
Palumbo’s attorney, James M. Catterson of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, in an email Wednesday said the vote does not render the case moot.
“An eleventh-hour floor vote to avoid an adverse decision in court is an admission that such a vote was required all along and that the Judiciary Committee action refusing to send Justice LaSalle’s nomination to the full senate was unconstitutional,” he said. “Further, in having the vote now, the majority is clearly trying to evade any judicial scrutiny.”
The case is Palumbo v. New York State Senate, N.Y. Sup. Ct., No. 603276/2023, Complaint 2/9/23.
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