State Senate vote on chief judge pick was shameful
Court of Appeals chief judge nominee Hector LaSalle got his floor vote in the State Senate Wednesday and the losing result, while inevitable, was a shameful exercise by the chamber. In this power struggle between the legislature and executive, all New Yorkers lost. It's a troubling harbinger for the independence of the judiciary.
LaSalle, the presiding justice of the Appellate Division in Brooklyn, was an exceptionally qualified nominee and a good pick by Gov. Kathy Hochul, despite her ineptness at guiding him over the finish line. He has a strong record in the lower courts and is an experienced administrator. The Long Islander of Puerto Rican descent would have done a fine job running the state court system. But Senate Democrats openly say they want someone who will rule in favor of their leftist agenda.
As Republican Sen. Anthony Palumbo said of the Brentwood native before the vote, "He is a plain old liberal Democrat who apparently isn't good enough."
This was the first rejection of a nominee since New York moved from an elected to an appointive system 46 years ago. Under the current system, an independent panel screens the nominees and sends a list of seven to the governor. The State Senate then must approve the choice, a check to make sure the nominee has the required skills, not the favored political philosophy of the moment.
The vote came just days after Palumbo, who represents eastern Suffolk County, filed a lawsuit challenging the decision by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins not to hold a floor vote on the nomination. The Judiciary Committee, which the leadership stacked with opponents of LaSalle, blocked it last month from moving forward to the floor. Before Wednesday's vote, Stewart-Cousins issued a statement that said she changed course to end the issue as a "distraction." She failed to note that it was her chamber that caused the "distraction."
The quick vote, at a time when some Democrats who favored LaSalle were not in Albany, clearly was a cynical move to fend off Palumbo's lawsuit which was to be argued Friday. Democrats, still hurting from a devastating rebuke by the Court of Appeals over their gerrymandered redistricting maps, apparently didn't want to risk another embarrassing loss over their understanding of the state Constitution.
It's unclear what comes next. Can Hochul pick from the remaining six candidates on the list or does the Committee on Judicial Nomination start anew? That latter might be the better route; let tempers cool and allow time for new candidates to emerge. Hopefully, exceptional candidates will still apply despite LaSalle's mauling.
Meanwhile, acting Chief Judge Anthony Cannataro can designate appellate judges to sit on the top court to hear cases to keep the court's docket moving and break ties. Hey, we know a good appellate judge who is free to take on those tasks.
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