Commentary: Hochul’s grandstanding isn’t doing Latinos any favors

At this point, there is no good outcome for the governor even if she rams her Court of Appeals nominee through the state Senate.

Gov. Kathy Hochul held a press conference with elected leaders in support of her chief judge nominee.

Gov. Kathy Hochul held a press conference with elected leaders in support of her chief judge nominee. Don Pollard/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

With the State Senate Judiciary Committee’s 9-10 rejection of Hector LaSalle to be New York’s chief judge of the Court of Appeals, the prospect of having the state’s first Latino top judge this year are rapidly fading. Many of the state’s most prominent Latino elected officials are quite all right with that, and some even led the charge.

The debate over LaSalle came down at least in part to a tension over which of his identities mattered most: his heritage as a longtime Latino jurist who could make history atop the state’s highest court, or as a conservative judge whose historic tenure could, in the eyes of detractors, pose risks to New York’s status as a haven for labor and abortion rights. If confirmed, he would not only lead the court but be its tie-breaking vote between fairly consistent blocs of three liberal and three conservative judges.

This rift, as it increasingly does within Latino political circles, manifested largely generationally. One one side was a sort of old-guard, get-our-people-in contingent pushing strenuously for LaSalle’s confirmation, led by big names like powerhouse political consultant Luis Miranda and former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, against younger officials like socialist state Sens. Kristen Gonzalez and Julia Salazar.

While some might want to reflexively toss this into the bucket of progressives demanding absolute ideological purity – with Hochul and allies suggesting that the counter-effort is practically a smear campaign focusing on a handful of cases out of thousands that have gone before LaSalle – the questions raised by the cases at issue are legitimate, and there’s no way the governor can claim the backlash caught her off guard. The cases at the center of the maelstrom were first surfaced by a group of law professors before the nomination was even formally made. 

Ironically, there are murmurs that this whole saga was set off specifically because Hochul wanted to select the state’s first Latino chief judge, hoping it would be a triumphant moment indicative of her commitment to a diverse state power structure and a vector for Latino support. Instead, she managed to put a Latino jurist through the ringer, expose him to incoming fire from plenty of firebrand progressive Latino legislators who are now going to regard her with even more skepticism, and still lose.

At least, let’s hope she considers it a loss. With the committee vote in the rearview, it would behoove her to just take the defeat and walk away, instead of setting up a wide-ranging separation of powers fight that will finish antagonizing the supermajority in the state Senate and delight Republicans who are eager to watch Democrats damage each other in a drawn-out internal power struggle. Unfortunately, things may well be headed in that direction, with Hochul reportedly retaining a high-powered law firm to lead the effort.

The governor may well have the law on her side, as the state constitution could be read as requiring a full Senate vote on LaSalle’s nomination, but getting there will mean going to war against her own legislative caucus, and for what? If it’s the jubilant headline of the first Latino chief judge in history that she’s after, that’s not what she’ll be getting. Provided that LaSalle wins enough support from Republicans to squeak out a victory, the headlines will be about how the governor, fresh off her election to a first full term, bludgeoned the state Senate into overriding the Judiciary Committee – something never before even attempted – with the support of the GOP bloc, a decidedly Cuomo-esque move.

With a slate of other qualified jurists in hand, already helpfully pre-selected by the Commission on Judicial Nomination, the governor could just move on down the list, and it’s not like the rest of the candidates are leftist ideologues. If she stays the course, not only will LaSalle’s Latinidad not really matter in the long run – it will be a footnote in the history of how the new governor sued the Senate – it might backfire, with Latinos receiving the message that Hochul sees their identity merely as a way to override objections against her pick for a crucial role, using it as a shield to push through someone who, let’s be honest, is probably out of step with the median New York voter, certainly the voter base that propelled her to victory.

That’s a perception that Hochul will especially want to avoid following the fiasco with former Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin, who many felt Hochul selected due to his being a Black political figure with downstate credibility, but whom she clearly didn’t vet stringently enough, resulting in his resigning seven months in under a cloud of investigations. (Benjamin maintains he did nothing wrong.)  Let this be a lesson in the limits of pure identity politics. It is a virtue and a commendable goal to reach for people of diverse backgrounds for positions that impact all New Yorkers, but that alone only says so much.