Late last year, Gov. Kathy Hochul sought the input of New York’s most powerful labor unions as she weighed a major decision: who to appoint as chief justice of the Empire State’s highest court.
The newly elected Democrat offered a list of potential candidates for his labor allies to consider. According to three sources familiar with the discussions, there is only one name on the list that worries them.
That name ended up being the one Hochul announced as her nominee: Hector LaSalle.
From labor unions to abortion rights groups, key Democratic constituencies have come out of the woodwork to oppose LaSalle, who is currently a high-ranking state judge, as Hochul touts his nomination.
Concerns centered on what critics described as LaSalle’s conservative bias on issues like abortion access and labor rights — leaving Democrats to wonder why Hochul would put him at the helm of a court that had a conservative majority for most of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration.
Despite the backlash, Hochul moved forward with LaSalle’s nomination. She implemented “the Cuomo playbook without the Cuomo power,” as one former New York lawmaker put it.
Now Hochul is on the brink of an all-out war with his own party’s supermajority in the State Senate. On Wednesday, the State Senate Judiciary Committee held a long-awaited hearing on LaSalle’s nomination: When it ended, the committee voted against his confirmation by a 10-9 vote.
Clearly undeterred, Hochul only dug in deeper. She took the remarkable step of keeping a lead judge in preparation for potential Senate trial if they don’t take LaSalle’s nomination to the floor of the full House — where he could still lose a vote.
Even LaSalle supporters were left speechless by how the nomination process unfolded.
“It’s a fucking show,” an acting judge told The Daily Beast, speaking on condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the controversial nomination. “There are lower court judges who are far less qualified and in positions to have more of an effect on ordinary New Yorkers who are routinely confirmed by the same people who complain about LaSalle.”
“That would be like if [President Joe] Biden before introducing the justice [Ketanji Brown] Jackson, don’t talk to [Sens.] Sinema and Manchin to get them on board,” a New York Democrat told The Daily Beast, speaking on condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the behind-the-scenes mutual recriminations over the debacle.
The drama has thrown the New York Democratic Party even deeper into chaos. Notably, the battle defied the typical paradigm of progressive-versus-establishment party battles: Hochul’s moves rattled nearly every corner of the Democratic Party’s “big tent.”
Across New York, Democrats marveled not only at Hochul’s apparent miscalculation thus far, but also at her apparent willingness to throw gasoline on the fire by suing the State Senate.
“She’s a governor, she has incredible amounts of power, and she’s going to sue the legislature?” the strategist said at another point with an audible sigh. “Come on to hell. It’s just a shame and it looks so weak.”
Capturing the sentiment among Albany Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins issued a pointed statement Friday afternoon, warning Hochul that the Senate would not “just act as a rubber stamp” for her wishes.
“This is a dangerous violation of the separation of powers,” Stewart-Cousins said of a potential lawsuit.
A sitting Democratic senator, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the ramifications candidly, was candid with The Daily Beast about the implications of Hochul taking them to court.
“This case is settled,” the senator said. “Any further litigation would be very damaging to the governor.”
A spokesman for Hochul said the governor chose from a list of seven qualified candidates drawn up by the Judicial Nominating Commission, as required by the New York state constitution.
“The committee, which includes a Senate appointee, Robin Bikal, released a list of seven and stated, ‘Hon. Hector D. LaSalle, Presiding Judge of the Appellate Division, Second Department, was found by the Commission to be well qualified for the position of Chief Justice based on his character, temperament, professional ability, experience, qualifications and fitness for office. He was interviewed by the commission for the Chief Justice vacancy on November 22, 2022,” Hazel Crampton-Hayes, Hochul’s press secretary, said in a statement.
“The governor, as required by the constitution, elected from this list,” she added.
After her lackluster performance in what should have been a landslide victory against Republican challenger Lee Zeldin in November, Hochul was already under fire for her political strategy and facing charges it hindered Democrats on the ballot. While Hochul won, New York Democrats ended up suffering unusual losses in congressional, state legislative and local races amid the GOP’s intense focus on crime.
After weeks of post-election finger-pointing, New York Democrats may have been in the mood to patch things up — at least before LaSalle stepped into the spotlight as Hochul’s pick to lead the state’s highest court.
Despite the wishes of Senate Democrats avoid combatHochul has escalated what began as an ideological debate over the partisan balance of the judiciary into a power struggle between the branches of state government.
The struggle between the executive and legislative branches can be “existential” for the legislature, as former Assemblyman Yuh-Line Niu, a progressive Manhattan leader, described it.
“It’s called checks and balances,” the progressive tweeted former Republican Gov. George Pataki after announcing his support for Hochul’s call for a full vote. “The legislature is a co-equal branch of government, Governor. We learned this in social studies class.
LaSalle’s defenders argued that the entire debate was a product of the New York Democratic Party veering too far to the left and that the Senate Judiciary Committee had confirmed judges with less progressive bona fides before. Case in point: the Senate hearing on New York’s outgoing chief justice, Janet DiFiore, lasted only an hour– despite her conservative record and previous affiliation with the Republican Party.
But LaSalle’s failure raised eyebrows among Empire State Democrats on two other fronts.
First, there are what several sources described as “vet problems” plaguing Hochul’s administration, going all the way back to her first pick for lieutenant governor, Brian Benjamin, who only lasted seven months on the job before being indicted on federal bribery charges and subsequently resigning.
“She clearly has verification issues,” the former lawmaker said.
“The comparison to any other appointment is also absurd,” replied Hochul’s spokesman, Crampton-Hayes, regarding the comparison to Benjamin. She again cited the constitutional requirement that the governor choose from the Commission’s list.
For other Democrats, the situation reflects broader management and strategic issues in the Hochul administration.
“From the beginning, this was mismanaged from a communications and political standpoint,” the Democratic strategist said. “They didn’t have Senate validators, most of them were federal elected officials and Senate Republicans.”
The other conundrum for Democrats appalled by the Hochul administration is why she went ahead with the nomination when it seemed dead in the water even before the New Year.
LaSalle’s past decisions against organized labor have sparked much of the backlash against his nomination, but abortion rights groups and other key components of the Democratic coalition have come out against him.
Multiple sources relayed private conversations about concerns that LaSalle’s nomination may have been overly influenced by big business donors and New York power players such as Luis Miranda Jr., the father of award-winning playwright and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, who defended LaSalle from the start.
“It’s all part of the same thing, he’s using his son’s fame to gain entry and access for terrible companies and predatory companies to our communities,” the former lawmaker said of Miranda, whose firm MirRam Group lobbies on behalf of Cablevision, a LaSalle company ruled in favor of his legal battle v. Communications Workers Union of America.
Crampton-Hayes said any suggestion of a deal with big business was “absurd”.
MirRam Group did not return a request for comment.
Less than a year and a half after Hochul took office with goodwill and plenty of political capital following the fall of Cuomo, she now finds herself nearing a point of no return with Senate Democrats if her administration launches a lawsuit.
“It’s just fucking stupid and sad and pathetic,” the Democratic strategist said. “It just looks so dumb.”
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