New York Gov. Kathy Hochul on Thursday nominated Hector D. LaSalle, presiding justice of New York Supreme Court’s Second Department, to lead the state’s highest court.
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. He would be the first Latino chief judge in state history.
“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,” Hochul (D) said in a statement. “He has the skills, experience, and intellect to ensure that our highest court is seen as a leader across the country.”
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 starting Jan. 4.
Associate Judge Anthony Cannataro, former Citywide Administrative Judge for the New York City Civil Court, is currently serving as acting 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.
“I am committed to leading the Court with integrity and fairness, upholding justice, and protecting the rights of New Yorkers,” LaSalle said in a statement.
Hochul faced pressure from some lawmakers, progressives, 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 has a lengthy tenure in the New York court system, including a stint as a prosecutor for Suffolk County.
Union, Advocate Protest
LaSalle’s nomination received pushback from unions and advocacy groups who called on the state Senate to reject Hochul’s selection.
“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. “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.”
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.
The group also noted that LaSalle in 2015 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 U.S. Supreme Court taking up a case that could allow state-level lawsuits against union leaders, according to the Center for Community Alternatives.
The Communication Workers of America union condemned LaSalle’s nomination even before it was announced.
“New York deserves a Chief Judge that will have the backs of working people, not one whose actions suggest a hostility to labor and a willingness to champion his own policy vision over that of lawmakers, and it would be deeply harmful for Governor Hochul to undermine her own state’s laws by putting an opponent of workers’ rights on the state’s highest court,” CWA District 1 Vice President Dennis Trainor said in a statement Tuesday, anticipating LaSalle’s nomination.
New York State Bar Association applauded the announcement, touting his experience.
LaSalle, in his current role as presiding justice, “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 said in a statement. “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 association also 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.
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.
Former Chief Judge DiFiore, a Republican turned Democrat who was nominated to the court by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) in late 2015, was a controversial figure. She led a four-member conservative bloc on the court, often disagreeing with the three more liberal judges.
DiFiore, to the ire of Democrats, sided with three other judges in the decision to throw out the Democratic-favoring congressional and state Senate redistricting maps—which led to court-drawn maps that ultimately helped Republicans narrowly clinch control of the US House starting in January.
LaSalle, having served as justice of the Second Department since 2021, has led one of the largest state appellate courts in the nation, which includes 21 associate justices and more than 400 non-judicial employees, along with a budget of about $69 million, according to a news release from the governor’s office.
Prior to his role as presiding justice, he was appointed associate justice in the Second Department in 2014. In 2008 he was elected as a justice to the New York State Supreme Court.
His resume also includes serving as deputy bureau chief of the Special Investigations Bureau under the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office. He also worked as an associate at Ruskin Moscou Faltishek, P.C., and was an Assistant Attorney General from 1999 to 2002, according to the release.
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 his law degree from University of Michigan Law School in 1993.
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