Governor Hochul Nominates Presiding Justice Hector LaSalle to be New York’s First Latino Chief Judge!

In an announcement today, New York Governor Kathy Hochul nominated Second Department Presiding Justice Hector LaSalle to be New York’s next Chief Judge. Governor Hochul lauded LaSalle in her nomination statement, noting that ​​“New York’s Court of Appeals has a long history as a beacon of justice, and Judge LaSalle is an outstanding jurist in that tradition. He has the skills, experience, and intellect to ensure that our highest court is seen as a leader across the country.” If confirmed, Presiding Justice LaSalle would become New York’s first Latino Chief Judge, the latest historic appointment to the Court of Appeals.

The Senate now has 30 days to hold hearings on Presiding Justice LaSalle’s nomination and vote whether to confirm him. Although no nomination to the Court of Appeals has ever been voted down by the Senate, the Senators have vowed to closely scrutinize the nominee’s record and decide whether they think Presiding Justice LaSalle is who they want to lead the State’s court system. The the most liberal side of the Senate aisle has already condemned the pick, arguing that Justice LaSalle has a conservative record on the bench that disfavors unions and abortion rights. In particular, Senator-elect Kristen Gonzalez told New York Focus that Governor Hochul “had the opportunity to nominate a Chief Judge that prioritizes the needs of vulnerable New Yorkers. Instead she chose one of the most conservative justices on the appellate bench.” Senator Julia Salazar echoed those comments to New York Focus, saying that she was “[d]eeply disappointed in the Governor’s nomination of someone with a clear anti-union, fundamentally conservative record” (id.)

Those comments echo those of progressive groups earlier in the nomination process, after the Commission of Judicial Nomination released its list, that attacked Justice LaSalle’s votes against criminal defendants. Presiding Justice LaSalle has also been criticized for his “conservative” votes in two particular civil cases: Matter of Evergreen Assn., Inc. v Schneiderman (153 AD3d 87 [2d Dept 2017) and Cablevision Sys. Corp. v Communications Workers of Am. Dist. 1 (131 AD3d 1082 [2d Dept 2015]). Those criticisms appear overblown to me.

First, it’s important to note that Presiding Justice LaSalle did not write either of those opinions. Evergreen Assn. was written by the Second Department’s Justice Jeffrey Cohen, and Cablevision was an unsigned memorandum opinion. So extrapolating Presiding Justice LaSalle’s political views merely from his votes in those cases is difficult.

But even if you were to try, Evergreen Assn., which critics have claimed is anti-abortion, doesn’t actually have to do with abortion rights at all. There, the Attorney General served a subpoena for documents on a pregnancy crisis center that was alleged to be illegally practicing medicine without a license. The Second Department’s decision upheld the issuance of the subpoena against the center’s attempt to quash it, but merely tailored the documents that the Attorney General could request to ensure that it focused solely on the center’s alleged illegal practice of medicine. The court refused to sanction, however, the Attorney General’s request for funding sources and donor lists, because those items had nothing to do with the unauthorized practice of medicine and were protected by the First Amendment rights to speech and association. Presiding Justice LaSalle’s vote in the case actually shows that he is willing to stand up for constitutional rights against unwarranted governmental intrusion, even when the substance of the speech may be disfavored.

Cablevision, the alleged basis for calling Presiding Justice LaSalle anti-union, was a defamation case brought against two union leaders, in their individual and official capacities, and the union itself. The Second Department upheld the dismissal of the complaint against the union and the union leaders in their official capacities, but refused to dismiss the defamation claim against the leaders in their individual capacities, because all of the elements of defamation had been properly alleged. The defense of immunity for acts in the leaders’ official capacities was a matter to be decided after discovery, the Second Department held: “Whether or not the individual defendants were acting within the scope of their union responsibilities so as to be shielded by the Martin rule is merely a potential defense to the allegations, and is a matter for discovery and future adjudication.” Thus, all the Court held was that the defamation case could not be dismissed as a matter of law because the complaint alleged that the union leaders were acting outside of their official responsibilities. The Court did not hold the union leaders liable for defamation, or otherwise reach any holding that can be fairly characterized as anti-union.

To me, these votes show that Presiding Justice LaSalle is a fair judge who takes every case as it comes to him, and decides each in a way that is consistent with precedent. He is not the “most conservative justice” that his critics have tried to paint him to be. And when Senators are asked to vote for or against the first Latino Chief Judge of New York, I’m going to guess he will have enough votes to be confirmed.

Notably, Governor Hochul’s nomination of Presiding Justice LaSalle to be the next Chief Judge was a package deal. In nominating Justice LaSalle, she also secured his commitment to appoint Justice Edwina G. Richardson-Mendelson to serve as the State’s Chief Administrative Judge, who runs the day-to-day operations of the Court system. Justice Richardson-Mendelson was also up for the Chief Judge nomination, and was the frontrunner in my opinion. So, this really is a two-for-one package deal that lets Governor Hochul pick two of the very well qualified candidates on the Commission of Judicial Nomination’s list for very important roles in the state’s judiciary. Win-win.

4 Replies to “Governor Hochul Nominates Presiding Justice Hector LaSalle to be New York’s First Latino Chief Judge!”

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