Bronx state senators spar over criticism of Hochul’s chief judge pick LaSalle

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At a Bronx event over the weekend, state Sen. Luis Sepúlveda singled out fellow state Sen. Gustavo Rivera for his opposition of Hector LaSalle’s bid for the state Court of Appeal’s chief justice appointment.

Since being announced as Gov. Kathy Hochul’s nominee for the New York State Court of Appeals’ next chief judge last month, centrist judge and nominee Hector LaSalle has drawn fierce opposition from progressives and labor unions leading up to a contentious confirmation hearing on Wednesday.

LaSalle is at risk of becoming first judicial nominee to be rejected by the state Senate, as he faces opposition from 14 Democratic senators, including the chamber’s Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris a Queens Democrat, who’ve publicly stated they’ll vote against LaSalle in the event of a full Senate vote.

Hochul needs 32 votes, with some needed among the Republican’s 21-member Senate minority group as well as Dems who back LaSalle, for her nominee to be confirmed by the chamber.

But LaSalle has his supporters, some of whom rallied with the governor on Saturday in the Bronx, and urged the Senate to give LaSalle a “fair hearing” in his bid to succeed former Chief Judge Janet DiFiore.

Some supporters, such as state Sen. Luis Sepúlveda, drew lines in the sand, directly taking aim at the nominee’s detractors like leading state Progressive Gustavo Rivera, who he claims is “assassinating” LaSalle’s character and judicial history.

“I am pissed off,” said Sepúlveda, who said he would “die on this hill” in regards to a LaSalle’s confirmation. “I hope Sen. Rivera looks in the mirror … Hector LaSalle opened doors for you to be in the state Senate. Look at your conscience and do not forget these pioneers who fought for you to be a New York state senator.”

Rivera responded on Twitter, stating that he was taken aback by Sepúlveda singling him out for his opposition of LaSalle without so much as a conversation beforehand.

“I did not expect a colleague to call me out without attempting to reach out to me directly about our difference in opinion. This is a cynical attempt to attack me personally to bolster support for this nomination,” Rivera tweeted on Jan. 14. “It is counterproductive to pit Latino against Latino.”

Fellow Bronx Progressive U.S. Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez chimed in on Twitter, questioning Sepúlveda and other state Democrats for criticizing those in the Senate who may hold LaSalle’s fate in their hands.

Hector LaSalle would be the first Latino to lead the state’s highest-ruling court if confirmed by the state Senate. Photo courtesy NYS Courts

By confirmation or rejection, LaSalle will make history either way. LaSalle would be the first Latino to head the seven-member Court of Appeals, a historical landmark that was emphasized by former Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. at Saturday’s rally.

“I would not support him for this important position if I thought our shared progress on so many important issues was at risk,” Diaz Jr. said. “I call on my friends and colleagues in the New York State Senate to afford Judge Hector LaSalle a fair opportunity to answer the tough questions and earn their vote so that history, in this case for the Latino community, can be made once again. Like every other community, Latinos want and deserve it.”

In some of their advertisements, Citizens for Judicial Fairness have pointed to LaSalle’s candidacy as a step toward diversifying a racially homogenous bench, citing a statistic that Latinos make up just 10% of the state’s judges.

Those appointed and confirmed to serve on the state Court of Appeals carry a 14-year term. Prior to 1974, judges of the Court of Appeals used to be elected, but after reforms to the New York Constitution, an appointment process was created.

For many, this appointment is a consequential one that could shift the philosophical balance of the seven-member board after a four-judge conservative bloc voted in lockstep on virtually every case — 96 of 98 cases last session.

Many of those 4-3 rulings restricted the rights of criminal defendants, employees and tenants, legal advocates tell the Bronx Times. Chief Judge DiFiore abruptly resigned from her post in August and was under an ethics investigation that was recently closed.

LaSalle wasn’t exactly what progressives had in mind when they urged the governor to pick someone with a “diverse” background in their legal career, moving away from a trend of former prosecutors making the bench in the last decade.

LaSalle, who currently presides over the New York Supreme Court’s Second Department in Brooklyn, has had his judicial record taken to task by opponents who suggest his rulings do not support abortion, victim and union rights.

Brian Ginsburg, a lawyer who has experience arguing before the Court of Appeals, noted that LaSalle, if appointed, would be entering a new judicial territory — from overseeing courts bound by Court of Appeals precedent — to a court that re-thinks and re-shapes those precedents.

This is the seventh chief judge vacancy in the court’s history since the process was created. If confirmed, this would be Hochul’s second appointment — she appointed Shirley Troutman to take the bench for retired Associate Judge Eugene Fahey in December 2021.

The next vacancy on the Court of Appeals is scheduled to occur on Dec. 31, 2027, in connection with the expiration of Associate Judge Jenny Rivera’s 14-year term.

Reach Robbie Sequeira at [email protected] or (718) 260-4599. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes. 

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