Hochul Taps First Latino Judge to Head New York’s Top Court

The nomination of Hector D. LaSalle, a moderate who leads a state court division, could anger Democratic lawmakers who wanted the governor to name a progressive.

Gov. Kathy Hochul on Thursday nominated a judge considered a centrist moderate, Hector D. LaSalle, to New York’s highest judicial post, triggering opposition from progressives.

If confirmed by the State Senate to a 14-year term, Justice LaSalle would be the first Latino chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals, the governor’s office said. In addition to serving on the court, the chief judge oversees the state’s entire judicial system, with more than 3,000 state and local judges, 15,000 staff members, 300 sites and millions of cases.

Justice LaSalle, who was considered among the more moderate potential nominees, could encounter resistance in Albany, and some liberal lawmakers on Thursday had already vowed to vote against him. Democratic leaders had pressed the governor to nominate a progressive to replace former Chief Judge Janet DiFiore on the seven-member court to counter what they saw as its recent rightward drift.

“I look forward to meeting Justice LaSalle and thoroughly reviewing his qualifications and record,” said State Senator Brad Hoylman, the Democratic chair of the Judiciary Committee. He added that the nominee “must meet the highest standards for confirmation,” and promised a “fair and thorough hearing.”

Governor Hochul on Thursday said Justice LaSalle had “the skills, experience and intellect to ensure that our highest court is seen as a leader across the country.”

“Our state courts are more important now than ever when it comes to protecting our rights and upholding New York values,” Ms. Hochul said. “Judge LaSalle will lead the court in doing just that.”

State courts around the country appear poised to play a more prominent role, as a conservative U.S. Supreme Court cedes authority in matters of fundamental rights that were once resolved by federal courts. In the coming year, the Court of Appeals could confront cases involving abortion, police searches, worker protections, bail reform and the environment.

Justice LaSalle, 54, presides over the Appellate Division of the Second Judicial Department of the New York State Supreme Court, which handles civil and criminal appeals from Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, Westchester and a half-dozen other counties. He was previously a bureau chief in the Suffolk County district attorney’s office and an assistant attorney general. He was elected as a State Supreme Court justice in 2008 in Suffolk County, and in 2014 former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo appointed him associate justice of the appellate court he now leads.

Justice LaSalle’s critics have pointed to his votes on several cases, while he has served as an appellate judge, as cause for their objection. In a 2014 case, Justice LaSalle joined a majority decision denying a defendant’s appeal of a guilty plea on weapons possession charges, on the grounds that the defendant was aware he had waived the right to an appeal.

In a 2015 defamation case, Justice LaSalle and a majority of the appellate court held that while state law prohibits companies from suing unions and their representatives for labor-related activities, such lawsuits are allowed if companies can show that the representatives were acting in their personal capacity.

In 2017, Justice LaSalle joined a unanimous opinion that ordered the New York attorney general to narrow a subpoena issued to the operator of an anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy center,” saying the request was too broad and infringed on the operator’s First Amendment rights.

Justice LaSalle’s defenders said these cases hinged on procedural questions, and did not reflect his underlying beliefs about defendants’ rights, abortion rights or organized labor. They also pointed to other cases, including a 2018 decision in which he voted to require the New York State Board of Parole to reconsider the bid for release of a man who had been convicted of murder and sodomy when he was a teenager, nearly 40 years earlier.

Some progressive groups had opposed Justice LaSalle as a potential nominee, and on Thursday came forward to call on the State Senate to reject him, along with the New York Working Families Party and lawmakers backed by the Democratic Socialists of America.

The Center for Community Alternatives, one of the advocacy organizations that had opposed Justice LaSalle, urged senators on Thursday to reject his nomination. “Justice LaSalle’s deeply conservative judicial record includes decisions that are anti-abortion, anti-union and anti-due process,” the organization said in a statement.

Others welcomed the nomination.

Sherry Levin Wallach, the president of the New York State Bar Association, on Thursday praised Justice LaSalle, citing his experience and “remarkable intellect,” and saying that he had “demonstrated a keen ability to build consensus and to increase productivity substantially in one of the busiest appellate courts in the nation.”

Justice LaSalle was one of seven candidates picked by the State Commission on Judicial Nomination, from which the governor had to select her candidate.

n what appeared to be a nod to progressives, Governor Hochul on Thursday said she supported Justice LaSalle’s plan to appoint as the court system’s chief administrative judge Edwina G. Richardson-Mendelson, who oversees the system’s justice initiatives, and who was also on the commission’s short list. Judge Richardson-Mendelson had been among the potential nominees embraced by progressive groups.

Justice LaSalle’s elevation to the Court of Appeals would open up a new top judicial post for Ms. Hochul to fill.

The process of replacing Judge DiFiore was complicated not only by political concerns in Albany, but also by questions about whether she played an improper role in the elevation of an ally in the bid to replace her. Before she stepped down in August, she cast a deciding vote for Judge Anthony Cannataro — a newcomer to the Court of Appeals who had voted in lock step with her — to serve as its interim chief judge.

His appointment was a break from precedent: The role has historically fallen to the most senior judge on the court. Judge Cannataro was also the only sitting Court of Appeals judge to be approved by the nomination commission, even though the court’s three liberal judges — two of whom had more experience on the court — also applied.

Rebecca Davis O’Brien covers law enforcement and courts in New York. She previously worked at The Wall Street Journal, where she was part of a team that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting for stories about secret payoffs made on behalf of Donald Trump to two women.

 

 

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