Breaking Impasse, State Senate Will Vote on N.Y. Chief Judge Nominee

ALBANY, N.Y. — Last month, the New York State Senate’s judiciary committee did something it had never done before: Reject a governor’s nominee to lead the state’s court system.

The rejection led to questions, and eventually a lawsuit, about whether the rejection was constitutional, and whether Gov. Kathy Hochul’s nominee, Justice Hector D. LaSalle, was entitled to a full vote in the Senate.

In a surprise move, the State Senate will give him that vote on Wednesday, capping a weekslong intraparty battle that has divided Democrats and overshadowed legislative business in the State Capitol.

It is highly unlikely that Justice LaSalle will survive the floor vote in the chamber, which is controlled by Democrats who oppose him because they believe he is too conservative and hostile to unions, abortion rights and other liberal values.

If he is rejected, the move would complete an extraordinary rebuke of Ms. Hochul — the first time ever that the State Senate has rejected a governor’s pick for chief judge.

The vote by the committee had led to an impasse. While Senate Democrats argued that it amounted to a full rejection of Justice LaSalle, Ms. Hochul insisted that the Senate was constitutionally required to hold a floor vote as well, so that all 63 senators, not just a handful of them, could weigh in on the nomination.

The imbroglio led to a weekslong standstill that left Justice LaSalle’s nomination in limbo, as the governor considered whether to sue her fellow Democrats to force the vote. But the logjam weakened last week when a Republican lawmaker filed a lawsuit against Senate Democrats, accusing them of having violated the State Constitution by not holding a floor vote.

The lawsuit, Democratic state senators worried, could lead to a distracting and protracted legal battle during the state’s ever-crucial budget process, and heighten the risk that a court would rule that they had acted unconstitutionally.

It remains unclear if holding the floor vote will effectively make the lawsuit moot; the suit is scheduled to be heard on Friday in State Supreme Court in Suffolk County.

The fight over Justice LaSalle has devolved into the most contentious battle in recent memory over a nominee for chief judge, who besides sitting on the Court of Appeals is also tasked with overseeing the state’s complex court system, which has thousands of judges and staff.

The governor in December selected Justice LaSalle, who would become the first Latino chief judge, from a pool of seven candidates assembled by a special commission after the former chief judge, Janet DiFiore, stepped down last year.

But Justice LaSalle, who is currently the presiding justice of the Appellate Division of the Second Judicial Department of the New York State Supreme Court, was met with fierce opposition from progressive Democrats, as well as unions, reproductive rights groups and community organizations.

Democrats who opposed him pointed to his past as a prosecutor and to a number of cases he signed on to that they argued demonstrated he was hostile to unions and abortion rights. Senate Democrats, still reeling from a Court of Appeals decision last year that overturned redistricting maps they had drawn, also said they were intent on elevating someone who would break the court’s current conservative tilt.

Justice LaSalle and his supporters argued that his critics had distorted his judicial record to derail his nomination, while some allies of Ms. Hochul, a moderate Democrat, pinned the opposition on the party’s left-wing.

Justice LaSalle defended his record during a five-hour legislative hearing last month in which he declared his support for reproductive and labor rights, arguing that the cases his critics had singled out had hinged on procedural questions.

The 19-member Judiciary Committee, which had recently been expanded to include more Democrats, a move that the governor denounced at the time, voted narrowly against the judge, 10 to 9. The full Senate is composed of 21 Republicans and 42 Democrats, a majority of whom have voiced opposition to Justice LaSalle, especially after he was voted down by the Judiciary Committee.

Earlier this week, Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Senate majority leader, left open the possibility that Democrats could hold a floor vote, a stark reversal after weeks of insisting that they would not.

Even so, she told reporters on Tuesday that Justice LaSalle stood no chance of being confirmed, and rarely is anything voted on in Albany without the votes being counted beforehand.

“The reality has not changed and unfortunately this nominee does not have the votes,” said Ms. Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat from Westchester, who said her relationship with Ms. Hochul had remained “cordial” despite the standoff.

On Wednesday morning, Senate Democrats were meeting privately to discuss the floor vote, with some members being told that it would happen later in the day, according to a person briefed on the discussions.

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