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What's next, now that the State Senate has rejected Hochul's chief judge pick?

The New York state Capitol building at night.
Matt Ryan
New York NOW
The New York state Capitol building at night.

Now that the New York State Senate has for the first time ever rejected a governor’s choice for chief judge Gov. Kathy Hochul will have to choose a new nominee and convince the Senate to agree with her choice. The issue is still simmering as the governor and Legislature engage in their biggest task of the year, agreeing on a $227 billion state budget.

Ever since the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected Hochul’s choice for the next chief judge, Hector LaSalle, she had insisted that the state constitution requires a vote of all 63 senators, not just a single committee.

On Feb. 15, Hochul finally got her way. The entire Senate voted on LaSalle’s nomination, and he lost again. Thirty-nine senators, virtually all Democrats, voted against him, and just 20 voted in favor. It was a rebuke to Hochul from members of her own party, who believed that LaSalle was too conservative to hold the post.

The governor tried to put a positive spin on it, saying that she was victorious in winning a full up-or-down vote on her nominee.

“I think this is a good outcome, to at least let it get to the floor of the Senate,” Hochul said on Feb. 15. “And have the advice and consent of the Senate, not simply a committee.”

The dispute comes as the governor and Legislature face an April 1 deadline to agree on a new state budget.

Hochul, speaking on WAMC’s Capitol Connection, said she won’t let the fight stand in the way.

“I'm very able to compartmentalize different issues. I've been in this business a long time. I've had to work with people throughout life who have not necessarily agreed with me on every issue,” Hochul said. “But there's other issues where you find common interests.”

The governor said she wants to “change the culture” in Albany and doesn’t plan to hold a grudge. She describes her relationship with Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins as “friendly,” and said they met for nearly two hours before the vote was held to talk about budget priorities.

Stewart-Cousins agrees that the fight over the chief judge is not interfering with work on the budget and other issues. She said the confirmation process is more fraught with tension because of recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court that rescinded abortion rights and struck down New York’s gun safety laws that deal with the carrying of concealed weapons.

“Everybody is paying attention, riveted, to who's sitting in these seats, who's sitting in the judiciary, who's making these decisions,” Stewart-Cousins said. “So it was not inappropriate for us, with the eyes of the nation and the eyes of the state on us, to look for a nominee that was able to lead the court in this really, really critical time. “

Hochul said she will now begin the nomination process all over again and will request a new list of nominees from the state’s judicial nominating commission.

In a statement, Hochul’s press secretary Hazel Crampton-Hays said “Gov. Hochul is committed to selecting a qualified candidate to lead the court and deliver justice. We will look to the Commission on Judicial Nominations on next steps; the Governor will nominate someone from the list they provide."

Democratic senators who opposed LaSalle have said they want the governor to choose someone they believe will uphold liberal values and protect society’s most vulnerable.

Senate Leader Stewart-Cousins said whomever Hochul chooses will, like LaSalle, face “scrutiny” from the Senate. She said the times require senators to set a high bar, and they are seeking a “visionary leader” to head the courts.

“Somebody who comes with those sorts of credentials, and the kind of vision that is in sync with what we need, as well as the leadership qualities, as well as the management qualities, people will be open and receptive,” Stewart-Cousins said.

Stewart-Cousins says this time, she wants to “get it done.”