Gov. Kathy Hochul's chief judge of the Court of Appeals...

Gov. Kathy Hochul's chief judge of the Court of Appeals nominee, Hector D. LaSalle, gives testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee Jan. 18 in Albany. Credit: AP / Hans Pennink

ALBANY — The State Senate, in an abruptly called vote Wednesday, rejected Gov. Kathy Hochul's nominee to become New York’s new chief judge, dealing her a harsh and historic political blow.

Largely along party lines, the Senate voted down the nomination of Hector LaSalle, 39-20, to become chief judge of New York's Court of Appeals, the state's highest court.

It marks the first time in history that a gubernatorial nominee for the Court of Appeals has been defeated since the state moved from elections to appointments to fill the seven-member court in the mid-1970s.

Strikingly, the charge was led by Democratic senators to fell a Democratic nominee supported by a Democratic governor.

Thirty-eight Democrats, along with one Republican, Sen. Mario Mattera (R-St. James), opposed LaSalle, 54, a mid-level appellate judge from Suffolk County who stood to be New York's first Latino chief judge. Only one Democrat, State Sen. Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood), voted for him, joining 19 Republicans.

The snap vote, announced Wednesday morning about two hours before the Senate convened for the day, was called about six days after Republicans sued Senate leaders to force a vote on a nomination that had lingered for two months and had splintered Democrats.

The outcome was a victory for influential labor groups, pro-choice organizations and progressive Democrats who considered LaSalle too conservative. With the Court of Appeals trending conservative in recent years, many Democrats wanted Hochul to back a more liberal candidate.

"We are interested in changing the status quo because the status quo is not working for people," State Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) said. "That is why we are bucking … our own party."

"It's not that he's a bad guy or a bad judge. But we can do better," said Sen. Neil Breslin (D-Albany).

LaSalle sat alone in the Senate balcony gallery as the vote was read below. He didn’t react when the Senate’s verdict was announced and politely declined comment to reporters when he left.

Hochul nominated LaSalle in December. Last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10-9 against sending the nomination to the full Senate and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) declared the process over.

But Hochul, Republicans and many legal scholars said the state constitution mandates a full Senate vote on a judicial nominee. Last week, with Hochul still mulling legal action, Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, filed a lawsuit to seek constitutional clarification.

When a state court quickly scheduled oral arguments for Friday, Senate Democrats changed strategy, seeking to short-circuit the lawsuit by holding an immediate vote.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins contended the issue was becoming a "distraction" and "it’s time to put this matter to rest.”

The senator had been saying for weeks LaSalle didn't have to votes to win confirmation, which proved true.

Hochul sought to claim a small victory -- the nomination did go before the full Senate as she said the constitution mandates -- and sought to frame the outcome as a battle between branches of government.

"This vote is an important victory for the constitution. But it was not a vote on the merits of Justice LaSalle, who is an overwhelmingly qualified and talented jurist," Hochul said. "Now that the full Senate has taken a vote, I will work toward making a new nomination."

Palumbo said he wants the lawsuit to continue because he said the state needs legal clarification for any future battles over judges. He said LaSalle's record had been mischaracterized.

"He's a plain, old-fashioned liberal Democrat -- which apparently isn't good enough any more," Palumbo said. "The other side wants to pack the court with activists who chose not to follow the law."

With Michael Gormley

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