Three Queens lawmakers announce they’ll reject governor’s nominee for state’s top judge

Governor Kathy Hochul nominated Justice Hector LaSalle, the presiding justice of the state Supreme Court’s Second Department, as her replacement for the retired Chief Justice Janet DiFiore. (File photo)

After she was sworn in as the first woman in New York history to serve a full four-year gubernatorial term, Governor Kathy Hochul delivered a 25-minute inaugural address that made no mention of her nominee for the state’s top judge. Just over a week earlier, Hochul nominated Justice Hector LaSalle, the presiding justice of the state Supreme Court’s Second Department, as her replacement for the retired Chief Justice Janet DiFiore.

The LaSalle nomination is a historic one in that he would be the first Latino chief judge of the state’s top court, but that didn’t placate state Senator Jessica Ramos, who said after speaking with unions and her constituents she will vote “no” if the nomination is brought for a vote.

“This is an incredibly important role and we need the right person for the job,” Ramos said in a statement on Dec. 29. “Latinos deserve representation at the highest levels of the legal system, but we also need courts that represent workers and the right to organize. We can’t compromise our values.”

The LaSalle nomination has already been criticized by some criminal justice advocacy groups and left-leaning state senators for having what they characterized as a conservative judicial record.

State Senator Michael Gianaris and 18 of his colleagues in the upper chamber made it clear in a September letter to the governor that they wanted a progressive nominee who would reflect New York’s citizenry including diversity in race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, community service, nature of legal practice or professional background and geography.

Gianaris announced on Dec. 29 that he would vote “no” if the nomination was brought to a vote.

“While I respect the governor’s prerogative to nominate a chief judge of her choosing, the most important criteria must be to ensure a change from the harmful tenure of Janet DiFiore and her followers still serving on the Court of Appeals,” Gianaris said.

During an October virtual town hall hosted by the Court New York Deserves campaign, a coalition of dozens of groups across the state focused on reforming New York’s Court of Appeals, Gianaris vowed to not let a golden opportunity slip away. The Senate deputy leader told the panel that DiFiore was “the worst chief judge” to be appointed by a New York governor and that she presided over a court that included a number of conservative associate judges, including Madeline Singas, Anthony Cannatoro and Michael Garcia, who voted together without a single dissent among them in more than 60 decisions in the last year alone.

“Unfortunately, there appears to be a possibility that Justice LaSalle would represent a continuation of the unacceptable status quo that has sullied the reputation of our state’s highest court and ruled inconsistently with the values held dear by New Yorkers,” Gianaris concluded. “Accordingly, I would be compelled to vote ‘no’ should this nomination be brought to a vote.”

The following day, state Senator John Liu announced he, too, would vote against the nomination of LaSalle.

“The ideal candidate for this position would lead the court with the focus, integrity and intelligence of the former chief judge, the late Judith Kaye,” Liu said. “At a time when state courts play a critical role in protecting our most cherished rights, the current nominee’s work does not reflect this necessarily rigorous measure.”