Late last year, Gov. Kathy Hochul sought the input of New York’s most powerful labor unions as she weighed a critical decision: who to appoint as chief judge of the Empire State’s highest court.
The freshly elected Democrat offered up a list of potential candidates for her labor allies to consider. According to three sources with knowledge of the discussions, there was only one name on the list that bothered them.
That name ended up being the one that Hochul announced as her nominee: Hector LaSalle.
From labor unions to abortion rights groups, key Democratic constituencies came out of the woodwork to oppose LaSalle, currently a high-ranking state judge, as Hochul promoted his nomination.
The 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 install him at the top of a court that had a conservative majority for much of the reign of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Despite the backlash, Hochul plowed forward with LaSalle’s nomination. She applied “the Cuomo playbook without the Cuomo power,” as one former New York lawmaker put it.
Now, Hochul is on the brink of all-out war with her own party’s supermajority in the State Senate. On Wednesday, the State Senate Judiciary Committee held the highly-anticipated hearing on LaSalle’s nomination: when it was over, the panel voted against confirming him by a vote of 10 to 9.
Apparently undaunted, Hochul has only dug in further. She took the remarkable step of retaining a top litigator in preparations to potentially sue the Senate if they don’t bring LaSalle’s nomination to the floor of the full chamber—where he could still lose a vote anyway.
Even LaSalle supporters have been left speechless at how the nomination process has turned out.
“This is a shitshow,” a sitting judge told The Daily Beast, requesting anonymity to speak candidly on the controversial nomination. “There are lower court judges way less qualified and in positions to have a greater effect on everyday New Yorkers, who have been routinely confirmed by the very people complaining about LaSalle.”
“This would be like if [President Joe] Biden, before he introduced Justice [Ketanji Brown] Jackson, didn’t talk to [Sens.] Sinema and Manchin to get them on board,” a New York Democratic strategist told The Daily Beast, requesting anonymity to speak candidly about behind-the-scenes recriminations over the debacle.
The drama has thrown the New York Democratic Party even deeper into chaos. Notably, the fight has defied the typical progressive-versus-establishment paradigm of party fights: Hochul’s moves have rankled almost every corner of the Democratic “big tent.”
Across New York, Democrats marveled not just at Hochul’s apparent miscalculations so far but her apparent willingness to add gasoline on the fire by suing the State Senate.
“She’s the governor, she has incredible amounts of power, and she’s gonna do a lawsuit against the legislature?” the strategist said at another point with an audible sigh. “Come the fuck on. It’s just pathetic and looks so weak.”
Capturing the mood among Democrats in Albany, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins put out a scathing statement on Friday afternoon, warning Hochul that the Senate will not “simply act as a rubber stamp” for her wishes.
“This is a dangerous infringement on the separation of powers,” Stewart-Cousins said of a potential suit.
A sitting Democratic senator, requesting anonymity to candidly discuss the fallout, was blunt to The Daily Beast about the implications of Hochul taking them to court.
“This case has been settled,” the senator said. “Any further litigation would do a great deal of harm to the governor.”
A spokesperson for Hochul said the governor picked from a list of seven qualified candidates produced by the Commission on Judicial Nominations, as is required under the New York State Constitution.
“The Commission, which includes an appointee of the Senate, Robin Bikkal, released a list of seven and stated ‘Hon. Hector D. LaSalle, the Presiding Justice of the Appellate Division, Second Department, was found by the Commission to be well qualified for the position of Chief Judge based on his character, temperament, professional aptitude, experience, qualifications and fitness for office. He was interviewed by the Commission for the Chief Judge vacancy on November 22, 2022.’” Hazel Crampton-Hays, Hochul’s press secretary, said in a statement.
“The Governor, as is required under the Constitution, selected from that list,” she added.
Coming off a lackluster performance in what should have been a blowout win against Republican challenger Lee Zeldin in November, Hochul had already taken heat for her political strategy and faced accusations she was a drag to Democrats down the ballot. While Hochul won, New York Democrats ended up suffering unusual losses in congressional, state legislative, and local races amid an intense GOP focus on crime.
After weeks of post-election finger pointing, New York Democrats might have been in a mood to patch things up—at least before LaSalle came into focus as Hochul’s pick to lead the state’s highest court.
Despite Senate Democrats wanting to avoid a fight, Hochul has escalated what started as an ideological debate over the judiciary’s partisan balance into a power struggle between branches of state government.
The executive vs. legislature fight could be “existential” to the legislature, as former Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, a Manhattan progressive, has described it.
“This is called checks and balances,” the progressive tweeted at former Republican Gov. George Pataki after he announced his support of Hochul’s call for a full floor vote. “The legislature is a coequal branch of government, Governor. We learned this in social studies class.”
LaSalle’s defenders have argued that the entire debate is the product of the New York Democratic Party drifting too far to the left, and that the Senate Judiciary Committee has confirmed judges with less progressive bona fides before. Case and point: the Senate hearing for the outgoing chief judge of New York, Janet DiFiore, lasted just one hour—despite her conservative record and past affiliation with the GOP.
But the LaSalle debacle has also raised eyebrows among Empire State Democrats on two other fronts.
First, there’s what several sources described as “vetting issues” plaguing the Hochul administration, going all the way back to her first pick for lieutenant governor, Brian Benjamin, who lasted a mere seven months on the job before being indicted on federal bribery charges and subsequently resigning.
“She obviously has vetting issues,” the former lawmaker said.
“Comparison to any other appointment is also absurd,” responded Hochul’s spokesperson, Crampton-Hays, regarding the Benjamin comparison. She again cited the constitutional requirement for the governor to pick from the Commission’s list.
For other Democrats, the situation has reflected broader management and strategic issues within the Hochul administration.
“This has been, from the start, catastrophically handled from a communications and a political standpoint,” the Democratic strategist said. “They didn’t have any Senate validators, most of them were federal elected officials and Senate Republicans.”
The other conundrum for Democrats aghast at the Hochul administration is why she proceeded with the nomination when it appeared dead in the water even before the new year.
LaSalle’s previous rulings against organized labor drew much of the backlash to his nomination, but abortion rights groups and other key components of the Democratic coalition came out against him.
Multiple sources relayed private conversations over concerns that the LaSalle nomination may have been overly influenced by big business donors and New York power players like Luis Miranda Jr., the father of award-winning playwright and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, who championed LaSalle from the beginning.
“It’s all part of the same thing, he uses his son’s fame to get entry and access for horrible companies, and predatory companies toward our communities,” the former lawmaker said of Miranda, whose firm, MirRam Group, lobbied on behalf of Cablevision, a company LaSalle ruled in favor of in its legal fight against the Communications Workers of America union.
Crampton-Hays said any implication of a deal being struck with big business is “absurd.”
MirRam Group did not return a request for comment.
Less than a year-and-a-half after Hochul came into office with goodwill and a fair bit of political capital following the demise of Cuomo, she now finds herself nearing a point of no return with Senate Democrats, should her administration pursue the lawsuit.
“It’s just fucking stupid and sad and pathetic,” the Democratic strategist said. “It just looks so dumb.”