Albany Times Union

Chief judge search is on

Handful of names considered in wake of Lasalle’s defeat

- By Joshua Solomon

ALBANY — The number of submission­s to become the next chief judge of the Court of Appeals is fewer than expected, following the unpreceden­ted rejection of appellate Justice Hector D. Lasalle, according to a person briefed on the matter.

Given the limited number of submission­s, the Commission on Judicial Nomination is considerin­g extending its Tuesday deadline to receive submission­s for applicants interested in leading the state’s highest court, according to the person, who is not authorized to comment publicly on the matter.

Last month, Senate Democrats thwarted Gov. Kathy Hochul’s nomination of Lasalle and overwhelmi­ngly rejected the candidate amid allegation­s that he had been unfairly criticized for prior judicial decisions.

The rejection came as many Senate Democrats had complained that Lasalle’s positions are too conservati­ve and would not serve progressiv­e interests. They believed Lasalle would buttress a more moderate-leaning majority on the state’s highest court. The Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewartcou­sins, framed the decision in the context of the solidly conservati­ve majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, viewing the state’s highest court, in turn, as a bulwark to the politicall­y charged federal court.

The nature of the rejection of Lasalle came under intense political pressure, which featured shadowy lobbying efforts from both sides seeking to influence the lawmakers who are charged with confirming the governor’s judicial nominees.

In light of the very public political fight that surrounded the Lasalle nomination, the commission is lacking a robust submission list from suitors who want to be considered for chief judge, the person familiar with the matter said.

A handful of potential candidates, outside of the seven who appeared on the original list recommende­d by the commission, are part of the discussion­s, the person added.

They include Justice Rolando T. Acosta, outgoing presiding justice of the First Department; Associate Justice Joseph A. Zayas, who serves on the Second Department; Kings County District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, a Brooklyn Democrat; Andrew G. Celli Jr., founding partner of Emery Celli Brinckerho­ff Abady Ward & Maazel LLP; and Caitlin J. Halligan, a partner at the New York Citybased law firm Selendy Gay Elsberg.

Acosta is expected to join Pillsbury as a partner, the high-powered New York City firm announced last month. Acosta, who was born in the Dominican Republic and grew up in the Bronx and Washington Heights, worked for the Legal Aid Society and became its director of government and community affairs. In 1997, he oversaw the novel Harlem Community Justice Center, a “problemsol­ving ” court. He was elected to state Supreme Court in Manhattan in 2002 and tapped by thengov. Eliot Spitzer to join the Appellate Division in 2008. He was nominated to preside over the First Department in 2017 by then- Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

Zayas was tapped to be an associate justice in the Second Department by Cuomo in 2021. Zayas also worked for the Legal Aid Society. He would go on to serve under Acosta in the Harlem Community Justice Center. He served as an acting justice in state Supreme Court in Manhattan beginning in 2010, before being elected to the position in 2016. Zayas also served as an administra­tive judge for criminal matters in the Eleventh Judicial District.

Gonzalez, who was a vocal supporter of Lasalle, has moved his way through the district attorney’s office in Brooklyn since 1995. He became the first Latino to be district attorney in the state following his election in 2017.

Celli represente­d Stewart-cousins and the Senate Democrats on the Judiciary Committee who voted against recommendi­ng Lasalle’s nomination in January.

State Sen. Anthony H. Palumbo, a Republican, sued the Democrats for denying his constituti­onal right to a floor vote, an argument sustained in a ruling by a Supreme Court justice. Senate Democrats have yet to appeal the case despite publicly maintainin­g they did not need to conduct the floor vote they eventually held to reject Lasalle. Stewart-cousins agreed to that floor vote after Palumbo filed his lawsuit because she said it would end the “distractio­n” occurring as budget negotiatio­ns are ongoing.

Celli, a civil rights lawyer with experience representi­ng government entities, served as counsel to Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith during the Senate coup of 2009.

Halligan, the former solicitor general of New York from 2001 to 2007, was pulled in last-minute by Hochul’s administra­tion as it was preparing for possible litigation to force a floor vote on her nomination of Lasalle. The Executive Chamber entered into a $31,000 consulting contract with Halligan, none of which has been paid out yet, according to previously unreported records with the Office of the State Comptrolle­r. Ultimately, the governor did not sue when Palumbo, instead, filed the litigation.

Halligan was considered multiple times to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit by then-president Barack Obama, although she was never confirmed. In 2021, she was placed on the shortlist by the commission for a post on the New York state Court of Appeals, but was passed up by Cuomo for Justice Madeline Singas.

Lasalle faced opposition not only based on his decisions on certain cases and when he was called to serve on the Court of Appeals for a handful of cases, but also because he was a former prosecutor. Supporters pushed for his nomination based on not only his judicial record, but also because he would become the first Latino chief judge in New York. The state nominated its first Latino to the Court of Appeals three decades ago, Judge Carmen B. Ciparick.

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 ?? Will Waldron / Times Union ?? Democratic senators raise arms in a vote against Justice Hector D. Lasalle to serve as the state Court of Appeals chief judge on Feb. 15 at the Capitol in Albany.
Will Waldron / Times Union Democratic senators raise arms in a vote against Justice Hector D. Lasalle to serve as the state Court of Appeals chief judge on Feb. 15 at the Capitol in Albany.

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