Legal action may be next step in fight over Hector LaSalle’s chief judge nomination as Senate Dems strand firm

ALBANY — Senate Democrats are not backing down from their decision to reject Gov. Hochul’s pick to lead the state’s highest court as questions remain about what comes next in the wake of Hector LaSalle’s defeat.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) issued a scathing statement Friday pushing back on critics who believe LaSalle deserves a floor vote by the full chamber despite his nomination to serve as the chief judge of the Court of Appeals being shot down in committee.

“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,” Stewart-Cousins said. “This is a dangerous infringement of the separation of powers.”

Hochul and LaSalle supporters have accused Senate Dems of not fulfilling their constitutional duty by denying LaSalle a floor vote after 10 Democrats on the chamber’s judiciary committee voted down his nomination following a five hour hearing on Wednesday.

LaSalle spent much of the hearing countering claims that he is too conservative to head up the state’s sprawling judicial system.

The unprecedented move by the recently expanded committee followed a bitter public battle over LaSalle’s judicial record as progressive lawmakers, union leaders and other advocates vocally opposed his appointment.

Former chief judge Jonathan Lippman argued on Friday that LaSalle, who would have been the first Latino chief judge in New York, didn’t get a fair shake and said he believes a full floor vote will take place “one way or another.”

“I think the legal issues, without doubt, should be self-evident to the Senate that they must have a floor vote,” Lippman said Friday during a virtual presser with reporters. ‘Not only is that supported by the language of the Constitution.... the legislative history makes it clear that’s the case.”

Even if LaSalle’s nomination made it to the floor, Democrats have a 42-member supermajority in the chamber and insiders say more than enough members have expressed opposition in private.

Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal (D-Manhattan), the chairman of the judiciary committee, stood by his belief that the Senate fulfilled its constitutional duties, calling potential legal action a waste of “time, energy and money.”

“I hope that we can move on quickly,” he told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer on Thursday. “I would like to think this is a bump in the road. Democrats can disagree and we can also get over our differences and hopefully work for the common good.”

Hoylman-Sigal and others argue that the state Constitution not only instructs that the governor get the “advice and consent” of the Senate on nominations but also grants each house in the Legislature the power to set its own rules.

It’s the first time in state history that a governor’s pick for chief judge has been rejected by lawmakers since the current process has been in place since 1977.

Hochul has not yet indicated whether she is willing to sue the Senate over its rejection, saying only that she is “weighing all of our options.”

The Buffalo News reported on Tuesday that the governor has been discussing the issue with outside lawyers.

Attorney General Letitia James’ office is apparently staying out of the fray because both the legislative and executive branch are client agencies and it would be a conflict.

Last month, James issued a statement praising LaSalle, saying he would “bring unique perspectives and a wealth of experience to this critical role.”

The Attorney General has not weighed in on the nomination process since.

Complicating matters, Lippman indicated that others could potentially sue Senate Democrats in an attempt to force a floor vote, including Republican lawmakers.

“I think the players here who have been directly involved in this all have standing,” he said. “Standing will not be an issue in this case.”

It is also unclear how the Court of Appeals will proceed with regards to a formal letter sent by Stewart-Cousins notifying Hochul of the rejection. State law requires the letter be signed by the president of the Senate, which would be Lt. Gov. Antonio Delgado, not Stewart-Cousins.

A Court of Appeals spokesman offered no comment on the matter.