Hector LaSalle testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month...

Hector LaSalle testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month in Albany. Credit: AP/Hans Pennink

The Albany impasse over the nomination of Hector LaSalle to be the next chief judge for the Court of Appeals has its roots in the anger Democrats feel over losing control of the redistricting process last year.

Who draws the election maps in New York is still a pulsing plot line lurking beneath the nomination struggle. But is there a connection?

The furor among State Senate Democrats about LaSalle, a prominent jurist on an intermediate appeals court, is couched in wanting to move the court in a more progressive direction. Right now there is a stalemate in Albany as the fight turned into a power struggle with Gov. Kathy Hochul. LaSalle has not withdrawn, nor has Hochul withdrawn his nomination. There is no official vacancy on the seven-member court because the court’s clerk has not sent the required notification that would trigger a new selection process.

Meanwhile, in an Albany courthouse not far from the Capitol, there is ongoing litigation to force another redistricting of the House maps, perhaps as early as 2024. That effort is steadily moving ahead and whether LaSalle gets seated could make the difference in the outcome.

To better see what’s ahead, it helps to look back.

This uproar began in April when the Court of Appeals decided the State Legislature violated the state Constitution with its redistricting maps that favored Democrats in 22 of 26 House seats. The legislature is empowered to take over the process when an Independent Redistricting Commission fails to agree on a new set of maps. By a vote of 5-2, the top court’s majority declared the maps illegal. However, it was by a narrower 4-3 vote, in the case known as Harkenrider v. Hochul, that the majority said the task should not be sent back to the IRC for a do-over as Democrats wanted. Instead, the majority approved a lower-court ruling to assign a special master to draw the maps.

In July, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Janet DiFiore announced her resignation. She had been key among the four judges who voted for the special master to draw the lines. With her exit, there is a 3-3 split on the current court over whether the IRC should have been given a second chance.

By September, Democrats had begun an effort to redraw the House maps for the 2024 election, this time with legal muscle from Marc Elias, the national party’s big gun on all redistricting matters. The Democrats who had served on the IRC were the plaintiffs. Their argument is that the Court of Appeals erred in not letting the IRC have another shot at proposing maps. State Supreme Court Justice Peter Lynch eviscerated their claims in a Sept. 12 ruling that said the current House maps “are in full force until redistricting takes place after the 2030 federal census.” The Democrats filed routine paperwork preserving their right to appeal if they should want to continue the case.

Not much else happened legally. But politically all eyes were on Hochul’s pick to replace DiFiore. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted on Jan. 18 not to send LaSalle’s nomination to the floor for a confirmation vote.

Two days later, the Democratic IRC members formally lodged their appeal to overturn Harkenrider, even demanding that the Appellate Division in Albany expedite the process.

“This action two days after the vote suggests to me that there is another motive involved in the fight to stop LaSalle,” said John Faso, a former GOP member of Congress who has been a key force in the Republican challenges to the redistricting process. Faso cited a call Thursday by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, supporting her chamber’s opposition to LaSalle. “For Holder to inject himself into a New York centric issue is highly peculiar unless it is about redistricting,” Faso said.

But Deputy Senate Majority Leader Michael Gianaris said the current challenge to the state’s congressional maps is being run out of Washington by House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries, who supported LaSalle. Elias, the party’s national legal strategist for redistricting, is representing the plaintiffs. “This litigation has nothing to do with us and there is no reason for us to know how LaSalle would opine on this case,” Gianaris said. “It’s a fantasy to spin such a conspiracy theory.”

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