Albany Agenda

Exclusive: Advocates who killed LaSalle nomination have a new target

The progressive advocacy group Center for Community Alternatives is raising questions about Gov. Kathy Hochul’s nomination of Judge Laura Ward as an interim justice on the state Supreme Court.

New York County Supreme Court

New York County Supreme Court Rocky89/Getty Images

Criminal justice advocates central to killing Judge Hector LaSalle’s nomination to the state’s top court are once again taking aim at Gov. Kathy Hochul’s judicial nomination, opposing Judge Laura Ward whom the governor has nominated for interim Supreme Court Justice. The advocacy group is also questioning the governor’s office’s claim that Ward’s term would end at the end of the year.

The Center for Community Alternatives, as part of its newly launched campaign The Court New York Deserves, is planning to lobby against Ward’s confirmation before the state Senate votes on the nomination Wednesday or Thursday. Her nomination only became public on Monday, and the state Senate Judiciary Committee is set to consider her on Wednesday. “Our strategy is to convince the Senate on the merits, within the very limited time we have, that they must not confirm her to this position,” said Peter Martin, director of judicial accountability at the Center for Community Alternatives. 

Despite the truncated timeline – his group opposes these kinds of last-minute nominations – Martin believes that the campaign can be successful. “I believe the Senate has shown itself increasingly willing to do its diligence on judicial nominations,” Martin said. “A growing number of senators are interested in learning about judges’ records, and casting the right votes on nomination, and we believe that the Senate will do that in this case.”

Ward was appointed to New York City Criminal Court in 1997, but has been serving as an acting Supreme Court justice since 2000. Despite its name, the Supreme Court – New York’s main trial court – is not the state’s highest court. That’s the state Court of Appeals. There are state Supreme Courts in each of New York’s 62 counties, and there are more than 150 Supreme Court justices in New York City alone. In New York, judges appointed or elected to other positions on the bench often get shifted to the Supreme Court due to shortages. Supreme Court justices are normally elected by the voters. Hochul now has nominated Ward to the position of interim Supreme Court justice, which is meant to fill out the remainder of the term of another judge who has left or retired. 

The difference between being an acting justice and an interim justice is that if Ward is confirmed, she could potentially serve past the mandatory judicial retirement age of 70, depending on when her term expires. She confirmed to City & State she is approaching that age right now, but otherwise declined to comment on her nomination. The chief judge of New York can allow Supreme Court judges to serve until the age of 76 if they are already serving a term – but that doesn’t apply to acting justices. 

According to the governor’s office, Ward is being appointed to a term that is set to end in six months at the end of the year for a vacancy that will be filled in the November election. Information about the terms that interim Supreme Court Justices are filling is not public. Martin cast doubt on the idea that Hochul would appoint her now since Ward is already an acting Supreme Court justice whose term will expire at the end of the year anyway due to hitting the mandatory retirement age. “There is no reason for her to be nominated to an official new term as an interim justice unless that term will allow her to be certified to serve six more years,” Martin said. 

A spokesperson for Hochul did not offer details about who Ward would replace on the bench. “As she has done since taking office, Governor Hochul will select judicial nominees based on their experience, qualifications and judicial temperament,” the spokesperson said. 

The Center for Community Alternatives and other criminal justice groups previously opposed Ward’s reappointment to Criminal Court last year by New York City Mayor Eric Adams. In a letter to the mayor’s Commission on Judicial Appointments, the groups said that she repeatedly failed to properly apply the state’s bail laws in her arraignment decisions and has demeaned defendants and their attorneys. They also said that a review of case data indicated that Ward had not published an opinion between 2012 and 2023. “Given Judge Ward’s long tenure on the bench, the evidence that we have gathered does not reflect the missteps of a junior judge, but rather the repeated failures of an experienced one,” the letter read. Ward was reappointed by Adams in January.

Ward was recently in the spotlight as the judge presiding over high-profile trials of migrants accused of assaulting police officers in Manhattan. She also sentenced a white supremecist who murdered a Black man because of his race to life in prison – the maximum sentence – in another case that made headlines.

State Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris told City & State that he has already spoken with advocates opposing Ward’s nomination. “Anyone who has an interest in an improved judiciary is someone we listen to and take into account,” Gianaris said. He added that his conference is still also considering the roughly dozen judicial nominees the governor made on Monday in the limited time available. “We’re constantly looking to make things better, but one way that could definitely be made better still is not to hand us a list of names with three days to go in session,” Gianaris said.

Lawmakers have attempted to make the recertification process for Supreme Court justice effectively automatic when they hit 70 if they proved mental fitness and need for their continued service. Hochul has vetoed the bill twice. The retirement age for state courts is set in the constitution, and while some lawmakers support raising the retirement age to 76, it would require an amendment.