This story first appeared in New York Focus, a nonprofit newsroom investigating how power works in New York state. Sign up for their newsletter here.
ALBANY, N.Y.—Governor Kathy Hochul’s first nominee for chief judge of New York’s highest court may be dead in the water.
On Wednesday afternoon, after a marathon five-hour hearing, the state Senate’s judiciary committee decided by a single-vote margin not to recommend Judge Hector LaSalle for confirmation. LaSalle, who currently leads one of New York’s four mid-level appeals courts, has been the most controversial nominee in the modern history of the Court of Appeals due to what opponents perceive as his conservative judicial record on topics including abortion, unions, and due process.
The committee voted 10 to nine against advancing LaSalle to the full Senate for confirmation as chief judge. To be confirmed, LaSalle needs to win a majority vote of the 63-member chamber.
But that vote is unlikely to happen, according to judiciary committee chair Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal, a Democrat.
“Nothing makes it to the floor that doesn’t go through the committee first,” Hoylman-Sigal said after the vote. “We have rejected the nominee.”
Instead, the state panel charged with screening candidates for the top court must now solicit applications and draw up a new shortlist, Hoylman-Sigal said.
All six Republicans on the committee voted to advance LaSalle’s nomination, as did three Democrats.
Earlier this month, Senate Democrats expanded the judiciary committee by four seats, adding three Democrats and a Republican — which may have been decisive in tipping the balance of the committee against LaSalle.
The court is currently split evenly between more liberal and conservative judges, meaning that the next chief judge will likely be the deciding vote on many cases.
Hochul and some political observers, including former Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, have argued that whatever the result of the committee vote, the state constitution requires a vote from the full Senate.
“While the Committee plays a role, we believe the Constitution requires action by the full Senate,” Hochul said in a statement after the vote. “While this was a thorough hearing, it was not a fair one, because the outcome was predetermined.”
Senate Democratic leadership disagrees with this interpretation. “The committee has spoken. The nomination is lost,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said after the vote.
Hochul has not ruled out suing the Senate to attempt to force them to vote on the nominee, though her statement did not address whether she plans to do so.
After Hochul picked LaSalle from a list of seven candidates in December, hundreds of activist groups and civil rights organizations opposed his confirmation, as did multiple major labor unions. Fourteen senators, including three judiciary committee members and Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, announced their opposition to LaSalle in the weeks leading up to Wednesday’s hearing.
In the hearing, senators grilled LaSalle about many rulings that he authored or joined that have elicited controversy since his nomination was announced. Senators returned in particular to three rulings that he signed, but did not write: one that curbed the New York attorney general’s investigation into an anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy center”; another that made it easier for corporations to sue union leaders; and a third that upheld a conviction despite the defendant’s allegation of racial bias in the jury selection.
The Court of Appeals later overturned the third case in a unanimous ruling, and LaSalle said during Wednesday’s hearing that he approved of the higher court’s reversal.
But Luis Sepúlveda, a Democratic Senator and Judiciary Committee member who voted for LaSalle, told New York Focus that LaSalle ruled correctly in the case.
“It wasn’t that she was a dark woman, it was that she was darker than another person,” he said. He added that the Court of Appeals was also correct to overturn the decision LaSalle signed.
Several senators asked questions critical of LaSalle’s record. Senator Sean Ryan said that the ruling to allow a lawsuit against union leaders was “protecting David against Goliath,” and Hoylman-Sigal said that his review of LaSalle’s record led him to believe that LaSalle is “hostile” to civil rights.
The sharp tone of much of the questioning was a departure from previous confirmation hearings for Court of Appeals judges. In 2021, Madeline Singas, one of the most controversial recent nominees besides LaSalle, received barely any questions challenging her record during her confirmation hearing, despite opponents of her confirmation outside the legislature having raised allegations of serious prosecutorial misconduct from her time working at the Queens District Attorney’s Office.
The fight over the chief judge position has been met with greater urgency — and controversy — as attention to state-level court systems has grown in the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade. In public writing about her impending choice, Hochul cited the reversal as crucial issue before announcing LaSalle as her nominee.
LaSalle’s supporters on the committee used the hearing as a chance to boost his candidacy. Multiple Republican senators called LaSalle “the embodiment of the American dream.” At one point during his questioning, Sepúlveda waved miniature flags of several Latin American countries, representing the immigrant communities that he claimed supported LaSalle.
But this wasn’t enough to persuade their colleagues to support the nominee, whose candidacy appears to have hit a wall.
No nominee for the Court of Appeals has been rejected by the Senate since the current system was implemented in the 1970s. Even Singas was approved by a wide, bipartisan margin in 2021. If LaSalle’s nomination is rejected, state law requires a new shortlist to fill the chief judge spot, restarting the months-long process to fill a Court of Appeals vacancy. If Hochul withdraws his name voluntarily, the law is not clear on whether she can nominate one of the other six candidates on the shortlist, or whether a new list is required.
Last weekend, Hochul rallied support for LaSalle in multiple events across New York City, including a Saturday event in the Bronx attended by House minority leader Representative Hakeem Jeffries and influential lobbyist Luis Miranda.
At one of the events last weekend, Hochul invoked the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. in defense of LaSalle. “Dr. King called upon us to be just and to be fair and to not judge people. And that has not been afforded to an individual named Judge Hector LaSalle,” she said at a church in Brooklyn.