ALBANY — Gov. Kathy Hochul on Thursday nominated a new state chief judge: Hector LaSalle, of East Northport, who could make history as New York's first Latino chief judge but whose selection will face opposition by progressives.
If confirmed next month by the State Senate, LaSalle, 54, would succeed Janet DiFiore, a Cuomo-era appointee who steered the state’s top court, the Court of Appeals, to the right. Her term also was marked by a rise in stinging dissents and personal barbs penned by the court’s seven judges in sharply divided court decisions.
Hochul called LaSalle an “outstanding jurist” who could unite the seven-member court.
“He has the skills, experience, and intellect to ensure that our highest court is seen as a leader across the country," Hochul said. “Judge LaSalle has a sterling reputation as a consensus builder, and I know he can unite the court in service of justice.”
LaSalle, a Democrat like Hochul, also would oversee the state’s sprawling court system and play a key role in how many cases come before the court — volume had dropped precipitously under DiFiore. Judge Anthony Cannataro, who had been serving as acting chief judge since DiFiore’s departure, will remain a member of the Court of Appeals.
LaSalle serves as the presiding judge of the 2nd Department of the Appellate Division, one of the busiest midlevel courts in the state. He is a former Suffolk County assistant district attorney who was born to Puerto Rican parents who moved to Long Island.
He grew up in Brentwood, became the first family member to graduate from college and now resides in East Northport. He would be the first chief judge of New York from Suffolk County.
LaSalle's nomination could set off one of the most public fights for a chief judge nomination in recent memory. Historically, confirmations have been pro forma in New York, unlike in Washington.
Hochul had been pressured by some liberal Democrats to nominate a successor who didn’t come from the prosecutorial side of the law like DiFiore. Some activists called LaSalle too conservative on criminal law and “anti-union” because he’d voted with an Appellate Division majority in a 2015 decision allowing labor union leaders to be sued as individuals.
Activists called on senators to reject the nomination and several liberal senators declared they would.
“Deeply disappointed in the governor's nomination of someone with a clear anti-union, fundamentally conservative record on the bench to be chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals. I'm a hard no on Justice LaSalle's nomination,” State Sen. Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn) wrote.
In contrast, bar associations had given LaSalle high ratings. When his nomination was announced Thursday, some Hispanic lawmakers celebrated the landmark nomination and urged his confirmation.
“Hector is a proud Puerto Rican and would be the first Latino chief judge. This is a great feat for latinos and our state of New York, which is stronger because of diverse leadership voices,” Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-Harlem) said.
Judge Barbara Kapnick, head of an association of state Supreme Court judges, said the group endorsed the choice and looked forward to working with LaSalle to “promote civility, collegiality and independence in the state’s judiciary” — a reference to DiFiore’s term.
Vincent Bonventre, a professor at the Albany Law School of Union University who has written extensively about the court, called LaSalle a “strong pick.”
“The progressives wanted someone more obviously liberal than LaSalle,” Bonventre said. “But that doesn’t mean he might not be a more progressive chief judge than they think. He’s a strong pick — and I say that as a liberal Democrat — because of his experience, his background and his reputation among those who have argued before him and worked with him.”