N.Y. governor picks LaSalle to be new top judge, frustrating progressives

2022 U.S. midterm elections
New York Governor Kathy Hochul celebrates at her U.S. midterm election night party after winning re-election in New York, New York, U.S. November 8, 2022. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
  • Hector LaSalle would be first Latino chief judge on New York Court of Appeals
  • Progressive advocates, lawmakers call LaSalle too conservative

(Reuters) - New York Governor Kathy Hochul on Thursday nominated Hector LaSalle to become the first Latino chief judge on the state's highest court, disappointing progressive advocates within the Democrat's party who view him as too conservative.

LaSalle, the presiding judge on an appellate court that covers parts of New York City and its suburbs, was nominated to lead the state's judiciary and head the New York Court of Appeals, its highest court.

"Judge LaSalle has a sterling reputation as a consensus-builder, and I know he can unite the court in service of justice," Hochul said in a statement.

Justice Hector LaSalle, the presiding justice of the New York Appellate Division, Second Department, appears in an undated handout photo in his chambers. Photo by David Handschuh, handout by the New York State Unified Court System.

If confirmed by the Democratic-led state Senate, LaSalle would fill a vacancy created when former Chief Judge Janet DiFiore resigned from the bench this summer.

"I am committed to leading the Court with integrity and fairness, upholding justice, and protecting the rights of New Yorkers," LaSalle said in a statement.

The highly-anticipated nomination was seen as a political test for Hochul, with Democratic lawmakers and progressive advocates expressing discontent over the seven-member high court's direction under DiFiore.

Many progressive organizations and labor unions had publicly urged Hochul to not nominate LaSalle, the presiding judge on the New York Appellate Division's Second Department, worrying he would entrench a 4-3 conservative bloc on the court.

He joined the appeals court in 2014 after first winning election to be a judge in 2008. He was earlier in his career a prosecutor in Long Island and has worked at the New York attorney general's office.

Among the lawmakers vowing to oppose LaSalle on Thursday was Democratic State Senator Julia Salazar, who on Twitter said he had a "clear anti-union, fundamentally conservative record."

Progressive advocates have said nominations by former Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo of DiFiore and others tilted the court in a conservative direction. Five of its six current members are Cuomo appointees.

Liberals' frustrations with the court grew following a 4-3 ruling written by DiFiore in April that held the state's new congressional map was unconstitutionally designed to favor Democrats and that the lines had to be redrawn.

A subsequent court-imposed map with more competitive congressional districts enabled Republicans to flip some seats during the November midterm elections, helping them narrowly take control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Hochul had until Friday to select a nominee from a list of seven candidates put forward in November by the New York Commission on Judicial Nomination, a state panel tasked with screening applicants.

A group of 46 law professors in an open letter last week said LaSalle's past decisions have reflected a "cavalier attitude towards reproductive rights, hostility to organized labor, and a worrying insensitivity to due process."

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Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at nate.raymond@thomsonreuters.com.