Hector LaSalle, Governor Kathy Hochul’s conservative pick to become chief justice of the New York Court of Appeals (the highest court in New York State), went before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday for what was meant to be the first stage of his judicial confirmation hearing. LaSalle has faced significant pushback from liberals and progressives, and significant support from Republicans, for his anti-choice, anti-union, anti-Black-jurors but pro-cop judicial record. At the hearing, LaSalle seemed to be the only person in the room unfamiliar with his own rulings. He told the committee that he supports unions and abortions, despite the fact that his judicial opinions say otherwise. The Senate Judiciary Committee wasn’t buying it: LaSalle lost the vote, 10-9. All six Republicans and three Democrats voted for him, but it wasn’t enough. This is the first time in New York’s history that the Senate has voted down a governor’s pick for chief judge.
Much like the Democrats who voted against LaSalle, I have an annoying habit of believing judges’ written opinions about actual cases instead of believing the opinions they share about themselves when donning a mask for their confirmation hearings. LaSalle’s opinions are problematic. In Cablevision v. Communications Workers of America, he sided with Cablevision and expanded employers’ rights to sue union leaders (no wonder Cablevision appears to be putting a ton of lobbying dollars behind LaSalle’s confirmation). In Evergreen Association v. Schneiderman, he made it easier for anti-abortion activists masquerading as abortion service providers to avoid an investigation into their efforts to mislead pregnant people. LaSalle has also been weak on criminal justice reform; in People v. Corbin, he ruled to limit defendants’ ability to know what rights they waive when they plead guilty. But perhaps his most disturbing case is People v. Bridgeforth. There, LaSalle allowed a prosecutor to dismiss jurors because they were “dark-colored.” They weren’t dismissed because they were Black; they were dismissed because they were a particularly dark shade of black. LaSalle, himself a former prosecutor, thought that was okay.
LaSalle is Latino. He would have been the first Latino chief justice in New York’s history. Indeed, he has enjoyed support from some prominent Latino Democrats as well as from New York congressman and newly anointed Democratic minority leader Hakeem Jeffries. And LaSalle is a competent attorney and judge. But that doesn’t make him a worthy candidate for an appointment that will allow him to rule over the state’s judiciary and exercise veto power over its government. The insistence by some establishment Democrats that judicial appointments are nothing more than political chits, to be played for short-term advantage, never ceases to amaze me. I’ve met frogs giving rides to scorpions who’ve made wiser choices than Democrats picking judges.
In this case, Governor Hochul has made the classic New York Democrat mistake of promoting a conservative judicial candidate who is supported by Republicans over the strong objections of her base. It would appear that Hochul took the wrong lesson from her surprisingly close gubernatorial election. Instead of supporting the base that kept her in office, she thinks that she needs to court Republicans to stay in power. To wit: Hochul would have lost her gubernatorial election to MAGA Lee Zeldin but for the support of pro-choice forces all across the state, yet her first act out of the gate is to reward Republicans with a judicial nominee they like. There’s a reason why this party is always losing or almost losing.
But perhaps more important, Hochul has made the classic white liberal mistake of using a non-white “friend” to shield themselves from rigorous inquiry and criticism. I had assumed that Hochul’s pick of LaSalle was just another example of a Democrat who undervalues the courts. Now, I think the pick is an insight to how Hochul truly views her Black and brown supporters: She sees us as saps.
That’s my conclusion after listening to Hochul misuse the holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. as an opportunity to support her foundering judicial pick. Hochul appeared at Trinity Lutheran Church in Sunset Park over MLK weekend and delivered a risible speech that attempted to graft Dr. King’s message onto LaSalle’s candidacy. I’m not making that up. Here are some quotes, transcribed by HellGate from audio provided by the governor’s office:
Dr. King called upon us to be just and to be fair and to not judge people. And that has not been afforded to an individual named Judge Hector LaSalle. And I know in my heart that we’re better than that. We don’t want to be judged ourselves, do we?
Wait, there’s more:
My household knew the story of Dr. King. In fact, I did a book report on him when I was a little girl while he was still alive. When he was gunned down, assassinated, my family sat there and held hands and wept. How could this be? How could this man of God who taught us about nonviolence and social justice and change, and not judging people by the color of their skin, or one or two cases out of 5,000 cases decided.
First of all, Governor Hochul, and I mean this from the very depth of my soul and on behalf of my ancestor who was freed from a plantation by William Tecumseh Sherman’s army: Please go jump in Lake Erie. Or Lake Placid. Or the Hudson River, for all I care. Jump all the way in and soak your book report, your tears, and your appropriation of King’s life and legacy to serve your petty political concerns in the murky depths. I’ve been a Black person in this country for 44 years, so I am somewhat used to white politicians making a fool of themselves on MLK Day, but this claptrap is a special kind of tasteless.
Amazingly, despite her rigorous completion of book reports, Hochul mangled the one MLK quote white people love to throw out there, and in the process completely changed its meaning. King did not call on people to “not judge people.” That’s not what he said at all. Instead, he said that he wanted people to be judged “by the content of their character.” That exhortation is not the “get out of judgment, free” card that white folks of low character seem to think it is.
Despite how some insist on misremembering him, MLK was not Jesus: He didn’t fight and die to absolve white folks of their sins. He wasn’t Nostradamus: His writings and speeches are not coded quatrains that can be interpreted to fit almost any situation. And he wasn’t Beetlejuice: Invoking his name three times does not make him appear out of thin air to haunt your enemies and find votes for your judicial nominee.
If we really must bring MLK into the judicial debate, I can think of no more solid, character-based way to judge LaSalle than on his own judicial record. No honest reading of King suggests he was a fan of judges who bust workers’ unions. Nothing about his philosophy supports making it harder for defendants to know their constitutional rights. And nowhere did King say, “I want people to sit on juries regardless of the color of their skin…unless their skin is too dark for a prosecutor to countenance.” I cannot claim to know how King would have voted on LaSalle’s nomination had King been part of the New York State Senate. But I can say that the 10 Democrats who voted against LaSalle have a deeper appreciation of what King stood for than Governor Hochul does.
Still, Hochul might be too dug in to listen, learn, and grow from this embarrassment. She has indicated that she might sue the state Senate for blocking her nominee, arguing that the Senate’s mandate to advise and consent does not actually allow it to block her pick. I do not know why Hochul has decided to tie herself to the mast of Hector LaSalle; then again, I don’t know about the political acumen of a white governor who goes to a church in Brooklyn and turns Martin Luther King Jr.’s death into a parable about her judicial nominee.
I can’t wait for MLK Day next year. Maybe in 2024 Hochul will honor King by nominating George Santos to a judicial appointment. He’s conservative and Latino (and “Jew-ish”), and Hochul will like that he helped King write his seminal work “Stop Being Poor: Letters While Putting Union Leaders in Jail.”