By defeating Gov. Kathy Hochul’s conservative judicial nominee, Hector LaSalle, New York liberals and leftists just learned an important lesson: with a confrontational approach, they can beat a centrist governor and wield significant power at the state level.

Gov. Kathy Hochul promoting her choice for chief judge, Hector LaSalle, while speaking at Primitive Christian Church on January 15, 2023. (Lev Radin / Pacific Press / LightRocket via Getty Images)

They called him “impressive” and “most qualified,” and repeatedly praised his classy politesse. Listening to the New York state senators kiss the ass of Governor Kathy Hochul’s anti-choice, anti-labor, antiblack, pro-carceral nominee for chief judge of the Court of Appeals and the State of New York, Hector LaSalle, a neophyte could be forgiven for thinking the candidate was a shoo-in.

But when the Judiciary Committee took a vote on whether to advance his nomination, they voted no, ten to nine.

It was the first time in history that a governor’s chief judge nominee had been rejected by the Senate committee, and a severe blow to the centrist governor’s power in the legislature — especially given that it was her first significant political action of the year, after nearly losing to far-right challenger Lee Zeldin in November.

The Judiciary Committee’s rejection of LaSalle was also an organizing triumph for a coalition of New Yorkers, including the New York City Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA) and the Working Families Party, determined to end the era of right-wing judicial activism in this state and chart a broader progressive course for the state of New York.

The story of LaSalle’s — and the governor’s — defeat began two years ago, when a group of lawyers close to NYC-DSA organized to oppose then governor Andrew Cuomo’s nominee for the Court of Appeals, Madeline Singas, who opposed progressive bail reform and had a history of rulings hostile to the rights of criminal defendants. Socialist state senators Julia Salazar and Jabari Brisport, along with colleagues like Gustavo Rivera, were outspoken in opposition to Singas. While the effort failed to stop Singas’s confirmation, it put a spotlight on the political importance of these judicial nominations and showed that there was nothing mystically nonideological about the judiciary, nor was the power of the governor absolute.

Out of that effort, the Center for Community Alternatives (CCA), a group that organizes against mass incarceration, built a coalition to advocate that the next chief judge should have a record that reflects certain progressive values, like defending the rights of workers, women, and people accused of crimes.

The process for picking a chief justice in New York is pretty wild. Candidates must apply; the governor can’t just call upon any qualified New Yorker out of the blue, as the president of the United States can when choosing a Supreme Court justice. Out of the applicants, a commission gives the governor a list of those who are most qualified.

From that list, the progressive coalition — which, in addition to the CCA, included many criminal justice reformers and labor groups — identified three candidates it could not accept and three that it could tolerate. Hector LaSalle was deemed particularly unacceptable. He was opposed by the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Legal Defense Fund, for example, because he had once ruled that “darker-skinned” people were not a legally protected class.

LaSalle was clearly a judge who would have served the boss class at the expense of the majority of New Yorkers, who are workers. One of his rulings made it easier for bosses to sue workers for defamation. In another, he interpreted Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations to protect only the worker, and not the worker’s unborn child, from lead poisoning. He also denied a group of home health care workers the right to recover unpaid wages.

Governor Kathy Hochul is going to have to find a way to work with a newly mobilized progressive coalition, who are not going to give her a pass on judicial nominations — or anything else.

It was stupid of Kathy Hochul to pick an anti-labor candidate, considering that she certainly would not have won her recent reelection without the help of unions and the Working Families Party. That she then refused (and still refuses) to budge on this issue, an important confirmation but relatively minor in the scheme of issues on a governor’s plate, is even more baffling.

But this nomination was an egregious own goal for her in another respect: after the Supreme Court last year gave millions of pro-choice Americans a reason to vote Democrat, and Hochul sensibly ran on that issue (and won only narrowly), she chose, in LaSalle, a judicial nominee who was at best uncommitted to a woman’s right to choose abortion. Pro-choice groups came out against LaSalle because he had curtailed an attorney general’s investigation into “crisis pregnancy centers,” organizations that use deceptive means to bully vulnerable women out of getting abortions.

Several political developments helped organize the Senate against LaSalle. Socialists Salazar and Brisport were the first state senators to come out against his nomination, making it easier for their colleagues to do so. Probably most important in moving liberal to moderate Democrats to oppose LaSalle was the opposition of many unions to his nomination. The New York AFL-CIO, SEIU 32BJ, the Communication Workers of America, the United Auto Workers, and other unions made public statements, and in some cases even rallied and lobbied, against the nominee.

The governor is threatening to sue the state Senate to bring the nomination to a floor vote. But if she does that, she will probably lose. She will also drag out this deeply embarrassing saga even further in front of the entire state, at a time when she certainly does not have a strong mandate from the voters.

The saga shows what can happen when the Left works in broad coalition with liberal and left forces to take on hostile, centrist Democrat. Governor Kathy Hochul is going to have to find a way to work with a newly mobilized progressive coalition, who are not going to give her a pass on judicial nominations — or anything else.

Meanwhile, that coalition of socialists, unions, reproductive rights advocates, and civil rights activists has learned a very important lesson: they can go up against the governor and win. Their constituent groups have proposed a wide range of legislative proposals that Governor Hochul has ignored or opposed, from good-cause eviction to taxing the rich. The question for them is how to use the momentum from this win to rack up further legislative victories for New York’s working class.

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