The top Democrat in the state Senate signaled Friday she would be open to making changes to the process of nominating judges in the state as a battle over the confirmation of Gov. Kathy Hochul's pick to lead the state Court of Appeals continues.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in an interview with WCNY's The Capitol Pressroom on Friday called the current process "incomprehensible" and could be revised.
"It is certainly worth having that conversation," Stewart-Cousins said. "I think people would be served better with a different type of process and something that's more nimble than we have now."
Any change would require an amendment to New York's constitution, which does require direct action by the governor.
"It's a constitutional issue, so if we do it, we would have to do it through a constitutional change," Stewart-Cousins said.
Governors nominate judges for state Senate consideration based on a recommendation of candidates by a nominating commission. The panel is composed of members appointed by the governor and members of the state Legislature as well as representatives of the judiciary.
The judicial nominating process in New York has been in place since 1978, meant to remove the politics of directly electing members of the Court of Appeals, New York's highest court. In the years since the change, a governor has not had their nominee for the state Court of Appeals rejected.
Stewart-Cousins' comments come as the confirmation of Hochul's nominee to lead the state court system, Justice Hector LaSalle, is up in the air following sustained criticism from labor unions and progressive advocacy organizations.
Multiple Democrats in the state Senate have signaled they would vote against LaSalle's confirmation. A key confirmation hearing is scheduled for next Wednesday in Albany.
LaSalle has come under scrutiny for siding with rulings advocates consider to be anti-labor as well as his time as an assistant district attorney in Suffolk County.
More broadly, some Democratic lawmakers have signaled they are displeased with what they believe is a top court that has shifted too far to the right on issues like criminal justice. Progressive advocates had also signaled for the last several years they wanted a nominee with experience as a public defender in order to diversify the bench at the Court of Appeals.
LaSalle's supporters in recent weeks have sought to mount a countercampaign to back his nomination as Hochul has publicly stood by him.
On Friday, a half dozen leaders of the unions that represent workers in the court system said the opposition against LaSalle before the hearing is held is unfair.
"Misrepresenting his record based on a selective and politically motivated misreading of a handful of cases is painting a portrait of a judge at odds with his distinguished record as a fair, scholarly, experienced, temperate and skilled judge, with vast administrative experience overseeing the busiest Appellate Department in the state," the labor leaders said in a joint statement.
Meanwhile, opposition to LaSalle expanded to include the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
“New York’s highest court plays a critical role in interpreting the laws that affect the fundamental rights of everyone in the state,” said Janai Nelson, the group's oresident and director-counsel. “As we have said previously, we believe that the court requires a chief judge whose record clearly demonstrates a commitment to civil rights and racial justice; and whose appointment will contribute meaningfully to the court’s professional, experiential, and demographic diversity.”