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New York Law Journal
We recently congratulated Hector D. LaSalle, a highly experienced jurist, on his nomination to be Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals. While NYCLA – a bar association that represents more than 7,000 attorneys – does not endorse or evaluate judicial candidates, we feel compelled to issue the following statement, because Governor Hochul’s nomination of Justice LaSalle has been subjected to certain criticisms that, in our view, threaten judicial independence.
Importantly, Justice LaSalle was selected as the result of a neutral process. The Governor does not have carte blanche to select nominees to the Court of Appeals. The Commission on Judicial Nomination – a bipartisan group composed of appointees selected by all three branches of government –thoroughly reviews all applicants. It assesses their qualifications, judicial demeanor, and aptitude for the job and provides a list of seven candidates to the Governor. Since 1977, when this process was first established by amendment to the New York Constitution, every single nominee to the Court of Appeals has been confirmed. This has held true regardless of which party occupied the Governor’s mansion and which party controlled the Senate. New York’s nomination process, therefore, is a story of bipartisan success – in sharp contrast to the partisanship and divisiveness that sometimes characterize the selection processes in other jurisdictions.
Notably, the list submitted to the Governor, from which Justice LaSalle was chosen, was described by a prominent law professor (and frequent commentator about the Court) as a “strong list,” with Justice LaSalle being one of the “stronger” candidates. Justice LaSalle serves as
Presiding Justice of the Appellate Division, Second Department, one of the busiest appellate courts in the nation. He has more than a decade of judicial experience, and he has been an appellate judge since 2014. Before that, he held high-level positions in government and also worked in private practice. Notably, too, Justice LaSalle will be the State’s first Hispanic Chief Judge.
For those reasons, Justice LaSalle’s nomination should not be controversial. Indeed, Justice LaSalle appears to have a strong combination of experience – judicial, legal, and administrative – to serve not only as a judge of the Court of Appeals but also as the top administrator of New York’s sprawling court system.
Yet interest groups pressing a political agenda – along with several legislators – have opposed Justice LaSalle’s nomination before any hearings on his nomination have commenced. Justice LaSalle’s critics deride his prosecutorial and government service, even though the job of a government attorney –like that of a judge – is to uphold the law.
They also attack him for joining (not authoring) a handful of opinions – none of which was reversed by a higher court – based on analysis that a respected commentator has termed unfair and that a former Judge of the Court of Appeals (and former law school dean) has opined would receive a grade of “F” in a law school class. They have assigned labels to him, such as “conservative” or “anti-choice,” based on this same, flawed analysis.
And, while misreading opinions that Justice LaSalle did not author, the critics ignore the more than 60 published opinions that he authored, personally, as a judge. Critically, as a sitting judge, Justice LaSalle is unable to respond to these apparently unfounded attacks.
As a Bar Association, NYCLA declines to take sides in a political debate. But we must speak out when our judiciary is subjected to unfair attacks – including attacks from high-ranking members of the Legislature – which threaten judicial independence. As 22 former appellate judges who previously sat with Justice LaSalle wrote in a letter to Governor Hochul, the criticisms of Justice LaSalle’s record cast “a political light on an apolitical position and do a great disservice to our courts and the rule of law.”
The Commission on Judicial Nomination was designed to remove the selection process for New York’s highest court from the political grist mill – and to replace ideological litmus tests with a bipartisan, merit selection process. The goal is to have a Court composed of fair-minded jurists with thoughtful, nuanced views – who decide cases on their merits and not because the result is favored by a particular interest group.
We urge the Senate to give Justice LaSalle – consistent with that constitutional design – a full and fair hearing on his nomination. We urge legislators – and commentators – to review Justice LaSalle’s record on its merits, without predispositions, to assess whether he will uphold the law and the constitution and give every litigant who appears before him a fair hearing. We also urge legislators – and commentators – to consider whether Justice LaSalle’s experience and temperament show that he will be an effective administrator. And, if he passes those tests, we urge his confirmation as the next Chief Judge of the State.
Vincent T. Chang, NYCLA President Adrienne Koch, NYCLA President-Elect