New York Governor Kathy Hochul has made history, after her nominee for the state’s highest court was rejected by the entire state legislature.
Last month, Hochul’s controversial nominee, Judge Hector LaSalle, was rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee. And on Wednesday, the Senate held a full floor vote and again rejected LaSalle, this time by a vote of 39–20.
Hochul released a statement Wednesday afternoon finally relenting, though perhaps not fully. “This vote is an important victory for the Constitution,” she said. “But it was not a vote on the merits of Justice LaSalle.” Hochul said she will now proceed to make a new nomination.
New York Senate Democrats initially voted against LaSalle due to concerns from the entire Democratic constituency over his judicial record on labor, abortion, and criminal justice. Rather than heeding their earlier warnings, Hochul instead promised to do “everything” in her power to push her nominee onto the state’s Court of Appeals.
The drama began in December, when, just weeks after beating a Republican during a midterm election in New York by only five points, Hochul chose to nominate LaSalle, whose record was criticized by liberals, progressives, workers, and abortion voters as being antagonistic to supposed Democratic values. These various constituent groups maintained pressure on legislators, and by Wednesday’s vote, at least 25 of the 63 state senators had publicly expressed opposition to LaSalle’s nomination.
Instead of responding to the criticism and nominating someone else from her list of seven potential picks, Hochul spent much of her political capital, and then some, to impose her will and force through LaSalle’s nomination anyway.
In early January, Hochul allegedly revoked Ironworkers Vice President James Mahoney’s invitation to the State of the State address, after the prominent labor representative criticized Hochul’s pick. It felt like being put “on the menu,” Mahoney said, particularly after he and other labor organizers worked so hard to elect Hochul in the first place.
Days later, newly anointed House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries went out of his way to appear alongside Hochul at a Bronx rally to enthusiastically endorse LaSalle. This was particularly striking given that Jeffries is House minority leader, and not House speaker, in no small part thanks to the Cuomo-crafted conservative majority on the state’s top court, which drew unfavorable district maps.
Her audacity never to be discounted, Hochul then appeared at two New York City churches on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to rally support for her nomination. “My household knew the story of Dr. King,” Hochul preached to the unsuspecting audience. “When he was gunned down, assassinated, my family sat there and held hands and wept. How could this be? How could this man of God who taught us about nonviolence and social justice and change, and not judging people by the color of their skin, or one or two cases out of 5,000 cases decided,” she concluded, tying the assassination of one of America’s most historic civil rights leaders to her unpopular court nominee.
Nevertheless, in mid-January, the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee voted to prevent Judge Hector LaSalle from advancing to a Senate-wide vote. Buttressed by Democratic voters across the ideological spectrum, 10 of the committee’s 19 Democrats voted against LaSalle, sinking his nomination with a final vote count of 2–10–7. (Two members voted unequivocally for him; seven voted to advance him without recommendation.)
Even then, Hochul wasn’t satisfied. She volleyed threats to take legal action against the Committee for tanking the nomination, on the grounds of the rejection being unconstitutional. She argued that such a nomination necessitated a Senate-wide vote; but New York’s Constitution only dictates that a governor must make judicial appointments with the “advice and consent of the Senate.”
Last week, Republican State Senator Anthony Palumbo filed a lawsuit against the Senate, Democratic Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and the Democrats in the judiciary committee who voted against LaSalle. The lawsuit was based on Hochul’s own arguments about constitutionality, but its legal case appears flimsy, homing in on some language while ignoring others. For instance, the lawsuit’s proponents seemed less interested in the part of the state constitution that reads, “Each house shall determine the rules of its own proceedings.”
But Wednesday’s result likely upends whatever ruling was to come from the case. By Hochul’s own wishes, Democrats gave her her statewide vote. And today, by Hochul’s own actions, she was embarrassingly rebuked once again.
This post has been updated.