State Senate GOP sues to force LaSalle vote

State Sen. Anthony Palumbo says Hochul’s chief judge nominee deserves to be considered by the full Senate.

Republican state Sen. Anthony Palumbo is suing many of the Democrats on the state Senate Judiciary Committee.

Republican state Sen. Anthony Palumbo is suing many of the Democrats on the state Senate Judiciary Committee. NYS Senate Media Services

After weeks of speculation over the fate of chief judge nominee Hector LaSalle, the state Senate GOP has sued their Democratic colleagues. State Sen. Anthony Palumbo, the ranking minority member of the Judiciary Committee, has filed a lawsuit in state court to compel a full floor vote on LaSalle.

In the suit, Palumbo named each Democratic member of the Judiciary Committee who voted against LaSalle, as well as state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, charging that they violated the state constitution by failing to allow the full Senate to weigh in on LaSalle’s nomination. By a 10-9 vote last month, the committee voted against advancing him, and Stewart-Cousins said LaSalle’s nomination therefore died in committee and would not make it to the rest of the chamber. “The New York State Constitution is clear, Judicial nominations must be considered by the full Senate,” Palumbo said in a statement. “Justice LaSalle is entitled to a full up or down vote by the full Senate, not as a courtesy, but because the Constitution requires it.” He said that the Judiciary Committee serves only an advisory role, regardless of Stewart-Cousins assertions about following the committee process for legislative business.

Progressive groups along with some labor leaders have objected to Lasalle, a one-time prosecutor who would be the first Latino person to lead the Court of Appeals, based on a handful of previous decisions they say are too conservative, such as a ruling that an employer could sue union members for defamation.

Notably, former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman has said that the Judiciary Committee cannot unilaterally reject a nominee from the governor, and that LaSalle must make it to the floor regardless of how the Judiciary Committee voted. Lippman pointed to the fact that the full Senate has never failed to vote on a judicial nominee, even when that nominee did not receive the Judiciary Committee’s recommendation. And he argued that the language “advice and consent of the Senate” is “crystal clear” that the entire chamber must confirm or reject a nominee.

“We have not been served regarding any lawsuit,” Mike Murphy, a spokesperson for Stewart-Cousins, said in a statement. “It is embarrassing but not surprising that the Senate Republicans have no basic understanding of law or the constitution.” A spokesperson for Hochul declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Supporters of LaSalle celebrated the news of the lawsuit and expressed confidence about his prospects. “It is critical that Justice LaSalle is afforded an up or down vote like every other previous nominee,” Carol Robles, a leader in the group Latinos for LaSalle, said in a statement. “It is our expectation that Justice LaSalle will be confirmed by the full Senate.” Since LaSalle’s rejection, more Democrats have publicly announced their opposition to his nomination, making his confirmation far from a sure bet, even if he gets the vote.

For the past several weeks, Hochul has not said what, if anything, she planned to do about the LaSalle nomination, saying only that she was exploring all her options. Although she retained outside counsel shortly after the Judiciary Committee rejected LaSalle, Hochul had not said whether she intended to sue. “(We’re) working on our budget, weighing all our options,” Hochul said when asked about LaSalle following the presentation of her executive budget earlier this month.

Whether Hochul had a hand in working with Republicans to file the lawsuit in recent days has opinions split among Albany observers. “I don’t think that it’s at all clear that the second floor is involved in this,” one insider, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about Albany’s inner workings, told City & State. They said that Hochul has moved onto the budget and simply hasn’t figured out a good way to get herself out of a politically tense situation. “(This) has nothing to do with Hochul. Barely has anything to do with LaSalle,” the insider added. “The Senate Republicans are in a hopeless minority. When they can sow division, confusion and dysfunction, it upsets the status quo.”

But a labor source said Hochul’s fingerprints seem to be all over the lawsuit. “Everything I’ve heard is that she’s stubborn and insisting on not backing down,” the source said. “What other reason is there to drag it out?”