ALBANY — Gov. Kathy Hochul misread the political landscape and suffered a serious blow when a Senate panel, dominated by her fellow Democrats, rejected her pick to be New York’s chief judge, political observers say.
Whether this is merely short-run damage depends on what she does next — which could include suing legislators to continue the fight and counting on Republicans to eventually help her out.
The outcome could have broad implications not only for this year’s state budget, but also the four-year term of a moderate governor dealing with a more liberal State Legislature.
It might also portend a constitutional crisis over New York’s decades-old method for seating its highest court.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Gov. Hochul suffered a serious blow when a Senate panel rejected Hector LaSalle, her pick to be New York’s chief judge, analysts say.
- What she does next could include suing legislators to continue the fight and counting on Republicans to eventually help her out.
- The outcome might portend a constitutional crisis over New York’s decades-old method for seating its highest court.
At issue is Hector LaSalle, a midlevel judge from Suffolk County, whom Hochul nominated to become chief judge. It’s a post that involves not only leading the Court of Appeals but also overseeing the sprawling court system.
LaSalle, a Democrat, was voted down, 10-9, by the State Senate Judiciary Committee — all 10 “no” votes came from Democrats. It’s the first time a governor’s nominee had been voted down since New York switched from electing to appointing the Court of Appeals in the mid-1970s.
Progressive groups opposed LaSalle, labeling him too conservative. But they weren’t enough to sink him, insiders said. When top labor unions, the NAACP and abortion-rights groups — key foundations of the Democratic base — announced their opposition, it signaled LaSalle’s doom.
Hochul misread the level of opposition within her party, analysts said.
“It hurts her seriously because it endangers her whole program,” said Doug Muzzio, a Baruch College political scientist. “It looks like she’s spending a lot of political capital on what appears to be a losing effort.”
Now she is weakened politically, though to what degree is unclear.
“It is a loss. Does it weaken her in the short run? Sure,” said Michael Dawidziak, a Suffolk County political consultant who works primarily with Republicans. “But she’s got tools to use with the Legislature. Obviously, she wanted to be a kinder, gentler governor than her predecessor. But sometimes what you need to use Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick.”
The first test will be whether Hochul continues the fight for LaSalle.
Senate leaders declared the nomination dead once the committee voted. But Hochul, LaSalle supporters and New York’s former chief judge say a committee vote is insufficient, and that the nomination must be put before the entire Senate.
They say the state constitution clearly says the full Senate “shall” confirm or reject the nominee, which is backed up by Senate practice in the few fights over nominees.
Further, they said Senate Democrats filed a legally deficient letter declaring the nomination defeated. The formal letter necessary in such instances was signed by Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers). But it should have been signed, they said, by Lt. Gov. Antonio Delgado, who is the Senate president, per the constitution.
“That letter of rejection is a piece of paper that is technically and substantively defective,” Jonathan Lippman, New York’s chief judge from 2009-2015, told reporters Friday. “That letter of rejection is meaningless.”
Lippman, a Democrat who supports LaSalle, said: “It’s very important that there be an up-or-down vote” in the full Senate, “and let the chips fall where they may.”
He said that’s not only the letter of the law but also the practice for more than 40 years. Even when the political party that controlled the Judiciary Committee objected to a nominee, the candidate still was voted on by the full Senate.
“I think this is very important for the future of our state and the future of the judiciary,” Lippman said.
Asked if this was a constitutional crisis, Lippman said: “We’re not there yet, but I think we could get there.”
He said a key day will be Monday, which will mark 30 days since Hochul nominated LaSalle — the legal deadline for the Senate to act on a nominee.
Stewart-Cousins issued a statement later that didn’t address the technicalities, but defended the Senate’s action.
"This ongoing attack makes it clear that there are those that don't accept the Senate's role in this process and will not be happy unless we simply act as a rubber stamp,” the senator said. “This is a dangerous infringement of the separation of powers.”
Hochul has said the full Senate should vote on LaSalle, but she hasn’t outlined how she’d force action. Her office reportedly contacted outside lawyers about possibly suing the Senate, but all Hochul is saying for now is she is “weighing all options.”
Some have said she’s in a lose-lose position: She either becomes the first governor to lose a judicial nomination or she fights and wins — with Republican support — while chilling relations with Democrats and unions who helped her win election last November.
“I think she needs to be strong here if she’s going to be effective going forward,” Dawidziak said.
Republicans could play a role if Hochul pushes the fight. All six Republicans on the Judiciary Committee backed LaSalle. The GOP holds just 21 of the 63 Senate seats, but that could be enough if LaSalle garners sufficient Democratic support, though that isn’t guaranteed.
There is also the question of whether Republicans could sue to force a vote.
Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk), ranking GOP member of the Judiciary Committee, said a Republican senator “probably” would have legal standing to sue, but added: “This is the governor’s fight.”
“They are flexing their political muscles to try to show the governor who’s boss,” Palumbo said of his Democratic colleagues and the debate over procedure. He added: “If they are right, I think it will rewrite the state constitution.”