ALBANY, NY — Gov. Kathy Hochul’s nomination to become New York state’s top judge has been rejected, an unprecedented rejection that underscores a deep divide among Democrats over the direction of the state’s judicial system.
After a lengthy hearing, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10-9 in favor of Judge Hector D. Voted against LaSalle’s appointment, whose nomination was bitterly opposed by progressives who considered him too moderate.
The committee’s rejection — the first time New York lawmakers have voted against a governor’s choice for chief justice — revealed how vulnerable Ms. Hochul, a Buffalo-area Democrat, could be to a challenge from her own party. All 10 senators who voted against the judge were Democrats; Two Democrats voted in favor of Judge LaSalle, while one Democrat and six Republicans voted “without recommendation.”
Rejection doesn’t mean the LaSalle story is over. The governor has not ruled out legal action to force a vote on Judge LaSalle’s nomination on the full Senate floor, raising fears of a constitutional conflict.
The fight over the appointment of the chief justice, normally a contentious test, has become the most important political challenge of Ms. Hochul’s first full term since being elected in November. The fight pits her against more progressive Democrats in the state Senate, testing her relationship with lawmakers. Recently released the policy agenda in Albany.
Running to become the first Latino Chief Justice, Justice LaSalle always faced an upward climb. Her appointment in December was immediately opposed by several unions, reproductive rights groups and community organizations, which pointed to lawsuits that revealed she was anti-union and anti-abortion.
A large number of Democrats in the state Senate have already said they oppose him — many have raised their objections privately — and many have argued that the judge’s elevation would help shore up the court’s conservative tilt.
In his first public comments since emerging as a political flashpoint, Judge LaSalle on Wednesday sought to remove what he said were unfair characterizations of his judicial record, vowing to “set the record straight.”
“I’m only asking that this body see my entire record, not just the record that some lawyers have chosen to see,” said Judge LaSalle, arguing that some of his cases were targeted in an unusually crowded legislative hearing room. It was misused to derail my candidature.
Judge LaSalle, questioned by lawmakers about his judicial philosophy, argued that many of the isolated cases involved procedural questions and did not necessarily reflect his core beliefs on the larger bellwether issues of union rights and abortion.
Indeed, citing his upbringing in a union and working-class family, Judge LaSalle repeatedly leans into his personal life story, centering his judicial career on breaking down barriers affecting marginalized communities.
“When you talk about labor, they’re the ones who raised me,” Judge LaSalle said, describing how he walked “the picket line with my abuela.”
She reaffirmed her belief in a woman’s right to abortion services, saying, “I don’t want my daughter to have less rights than her mother.”
Judge LaSalle is Chief Justice of the Appellate Division of the Second Judicial Department of the New York State Supreme Court, which handles civil and criminal appeals from Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, Westchester County and half a dozen other districts.
She was considered one of the more moderate candidates from a list of seven candidates to replace Janet DiFiore, who resigned last year. The Chief Justice leads the Court of Appeals and oversees the state’s vast and complex court system.
Even if the panel rejects Judge LaSalle, the conflict over his nomination is likely to end up in the courts. The governor argued that a committee vote was inappropriate and that his reading of the state constitution required his nominee to be subject to a full vote on the Senate floor.
The governor on Wednesday criticized the investigation as unfair, saying the state Senate suddenly expanded the panel this month to include more Democrats and said the “decision was foregone” after all three voted against Judge LaSalle.
While Ms. Hochul did not say whether she would pursue the case, she said she believed “the Constitution requires action by the full Senate.”
Shortly thereafter, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Democratic majority leader in the state Senate, appeared to reject that scenario, and her conference was interested in a chief justice who could “change course” for the appeals court’s conservative leanings. Judgments in recent years.
“It is clear that the nomination was rejected, that’s all,” he said. “We need to find a nominee that is supported by a majority of the Senate and then proceed with that.”
The state constitution says a governor must make judicial appointments “with the advice and consent of the Senate.” Ms. Hochul and some lawmakers and Senate Republicans say that means the full Senate, not just a panel, should vote for her nominee.
Democrats and even some Republicans in the minority may favor a floor vote for Ms. Hochul, who has more flexibility to string together enough votes to confirm Judge LaSalle.
Senate Democrats have defended the committee vote — the process usually used to move legislation to the floor — by arguing that the Senate can determine its own rules of procedure, especially since the Constitution does not expressly require a nominee to be voted on by the entire state Senate. .
In explaining his vote against Judge LaSalle, Senator Andrew Gounardes, a Democrat from Brooklyn, used a baseball analogy, saying, “It’s not just whether a judge can call balls and strikes, but more importantly how they view the strike zone.”
“After reviewing Judge LaSalle’s record after the case, I believe he has a conservative view of what a strike zone is,” he said.
Several Democratic lawmakers raised concerns about the defamation case in 2015, where Judge LaSalle and a majority of the appeals court ruled that state law bars unions and their representatives from suing unions and their representatives for labor-related activities. They acted privately.
“Any suggestion that I am anti-union or anti-labor is absolutely false,” Judge LaSalle said, adding that “I wholeheartedly agree that big business should not use litigation to silence the voices of organized labor.”
In her line of questioning, Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigel, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee, pointed to Ms. With DiFiore, the judge tried to bond LaSalle over. Judge LaSalle.
Judge LaSalle, a former prosecutor, also questioned the instances in which he sided with the prosecution, saying, “It seems to me that one could say that you lean against the prosecution and against civil liberties.”
Judge LaSalle said some of his opponents “don’t know” him, saying he understands “what people deal with every day in America, police involvement, with the law.”
Other lawmakers asked Judge LaSalle to join a 2017 consensus opinion ordering the New York attorney general to curtail a subpoena issued to the operator of anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy centers.” The case led to accusations that Judge LaSalle was anti-abortion rights.
“Based on your record, I think it’s unfair for people to project what some of your decisions will be,” said Sen. John Liu, Democrat of Queens, raising concerns about the lawsuit.
Justice LaSalle reiterated that he strongly believes in “a woman’s right to make her own reproductive decisions.”
In an unusual twist, it was Republicans who gave Judge LaSalle the warmest reception, with many saying his confirmation had become an intensely political process.
Senator Anthony H., a Republican from Long Island. Palumbo told the judge that Judge LaSalle represented “in my opinion, the epitome of the American dream.”
Despite pressure on him to withdraw his nomination, the governor has forcefully defended Justice LaSalle. Over the weekend he rallied support from other top Democrats, including Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the US House Minority Leader, who emphasized the symbolic importance of elevating a judge of Puerto Rican descent to the highest level of state government.
In fact, Judge LaSalle’s nomination has divided Latino elected officials, with some suggesting he was subjected to double standards because of his race.
Senator Luis Sepúlveda, Puerto Rican and a Democrat from the Bronx who voted for Judge LaSalle, said the judge was the target of a “character assassination” because he was Latino.
After the investigation, the committee chairman, Mr. Hoylman-Sigel warned of a possible “constitutional crisis” and urged the governor to refrain from legal action.
“It’s obviously the governor’s decision, but we have a lot of work to do in Albany,” he said. “To be distracted by a lawsuit would be a travesty for New Yorkers.”