L.I. judge says Senate Dems wrong to deny LaSalle floor vote, must hold one for next chief judge nominee

ALBANY — Senate Democrats were wrong to deny Gov. Hochul’s chief judge pick a floor vote and future nominees must be weighed by the full body, a Long Island judge determined on Tuesday.

Suffolk County Supreme Court Justice Thomas Whelan ripped Senate Dems and called their interpretation of the state Constitution “contrary to logic” as he ruled in favor of Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R-Riverhead), who sued his counterparts across the aisle for initially refusing to bring Hochul’s nomination of Hector LaSalle to be the state’s next chief judge up for a floor vote.

“It is time for this constitutional logjam to be broken asunder,” Whelan wrote as he tore into the Democrats over their insistence that a committee vote was enough to serve as a formal rejection of a governor’s judicial nominee.

“The appointment here was not ‘lost’ ... but was still alive, awaiting final resolution by the full vote of Senate chamber,” Whelan added.

LaSalle was first rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee last month and Democrats maintained a floor vote was unnecessary before reversing course in the wake of Palumbo filing his suit.

The Dem-led Senate rejected LaSalle’s nomination 39-20 during a hastily called floor vote last week.

Hochul, who was not involved in the suit, and other LaSalle supporters had argued that the state Constitution explicitly instructs that the governor get the “advice and consent” of the full Senate on nominations.

Palumbo sued Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) and 10 Democrats on the Senate’s judiciary committee who voted down LaSalle last month amid uproar from labor unions and others who opposed his appointment to serve as the top judge on the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.

Whelan made clear that he agrees with Palumbo, Hochul and others who said a floor vote was mandated by the state constitution.

“This Court must conclude that the practice adopted by the defendants is not allowed under the Constitution,” Whelan wrote. “The judiciary committee can aid the full Senate by performing an investigative function, but it cannot substitute for the power reserved to the Senate by the constitution.”

He also knocked Senate Dems, writing that under their interpretation a committee of one could decide the fate of any nominee.

Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt (R-Lockport) applauded Whelan’s decision and slammed Democrats for adding members to the judiciary committee earlier this year.

“Instead of following the law, Senate Democrats stacked the Judiciary Committee with far-left legislators to defeat a historic Court of Appeals nominee,” he said. “This decision will have a significant role in protecting the independence of New York’s judicial system from far-left politicians.”

A spokesman for the Senate Democrats said the decision is being reviewed.

Attorney Andrew Celli, who represented the Democratic lawmakers during a court hearing last week had argued that the suit is nothing more than a tiff among legislators and called for it to be dismissed.

“This case is an internal dispute between Sen. Palumbo and his colleagues in the majority, it’s not an appropriate dispute for a court,” Celli argued. “If the governor were here we’d have a different question to struggle with.”

Whelan disagreed, writing in his decision that he believes the courts were the right venue since the matter is “not a challenge to the rules of the Senate but an action to enforce, by declaration, a constitutional direction.”

LaSalle was the first chief judge nominee to be rejected by the Senate since the current merit-based system was put in place in the late 1970s.

The 54-year-old jurist currently serves as the presiding justice of the 2nd Appellate Division in Brooklyn. He would have been the first Latino to lead the Court of Appeals if confirmed.

The Long Island native faced fierce pushback from a wide range of opponents who argued the former prosecutor’s judicial records showed him to be anti-union, anti-reproductive rights and overall too conservative to lead the state court system.

Progressive lawmakers called for a more liberal-leaning candidate following the resignation of former chief judge Janet DiFiore last summer. Critics had accused the seven-member Court of Appeals of taking a conservative turn under DiFiore’s leadership.

Now, Hochul must wait for the Commission on Judicial Nomination to craft a new list of candidates before once again submitting her pick to the Senate for approval.

The governor said last week she will “work toward making a new nomination.”

“I remain committed to selecting a qualified candidate to lead the court and deliver justice,” she added.