State Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris doesn’t think Judge Thomas Whelan’s ruling in favor of Republican state Sen. Anthony Palumbo in his lawsuit against Senate Democrats on the Judiciary Committee will impact the Senate’s role in reviewing chief judge nominees. When asked about the ruling, Gianaris said it “wasn’t surprising” while asserting it will not be consequential for the upper chamber.
Whelan’s decision last week seemingly concluded the monthslong bitter nomination fight – complete with political grandstanding and questions on the interpretation of the state constitution – over Gov. Kathy Hochul’s chief justice nominee Hector LaSalle. Although Senate Democrats held a full floor vote on the nominee prior to the ruling, which resulted in a 39-20 vote to reject LaSalle, the Republican lawsuit was not rendered moot.
City & State caught up with Gianaris about the ruling, its implications for the Senate moving forward and if the Democratic conference is planning to appeal. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was your initial reaction on the ruling by Judge Thomas Whelan that sided with Republicans who argued the full state Senate must vote on judicial nominees?
Well, it wasn’t surprising given the way the oral argument went. But it also is not very consequential practically – in the sense that what happened was incredibly unique and the first time in the state’s history that the nominee was rejected. I don’t imagine a scenario would ever exist where a committee would disapprove of a nominee and the full Senate would go against the direction of the committee. That was proven last week when the vote before the full Senate was even more lopsided than a close vote in the committee. So having the full Senate vote would in all cases result in the same outcome. So I don’t think it’s terribly consequential at the end of the day to require that.
What does this decision mean for the Senate’s autonomy moving forward?
We disagree with the decision. But I don’t think, as a practical matter, it has any impact on the influence of the Senate over these nominations. I believe a committee vote to disapprove a nominee would always be met with a full Senate vote to disapprove – and that was that was shown to be the case last week.
Are there any plans to appeal Whelan’s ruling?
That’s being reviewed and we’re discussing it with the lawyers. I think we have about a month to decide what to do with that. So we’ll figure out whether it makes sense to stand on principle on a question that doesn’t really impact the influence of the Senate or the direction of the state on a practical level. We’re discussing that and the leader will ultimately make that call.
What is your response to criticisms that the conference only moved forward with a floor vote for Hector LaSalle in an effort to render the lawsuit moot?
I think it’s hilarious that it’s (from) the same people that were begging for full floor vote for months; they finally got it and are just unhappy with the result. So they found new reasons to complain and harp about it. This is what they wanted. They wanted a full floor vote. We made it clear from the start: This is the way a full floor vote would go, so be careful what you wish for. They wanted it, they got it and the nominee was rejected.
What is the mindset of the Democratic conference as Gov. Kathy Hochul prepares her next chief judge nominee?
The mindset is, and always has been, that we’re anxious to get a new chief judge and the court needs to move forward. But we have a constitutional responsibility to evaluate the nominee and make sure that we consent to that nominee. That’s the exact words in the constitution. So I’m hopeful that the process will be more deliberative and the governor will pick someone that we can all agree on.
Will the bitter nomination fight and the ruling in the lawsuit impact budget negotiations this year as well as the conference’s relationship with the governor?
Not at all. We’re all adults. This is politics. Oftentimes people disagree, as long as we do it respectfully and keep our eye on the ball – which is that our work is on behalf of almost 20 million people in this state and not on behalf of each of us individually. We should be able to work together on common goals.
Do you have any final thoughts or anything else you wanted to mention about the ruling?
On the last question you asked, we’re very respectful of the governor’s role. She’s the most powerful person in state government. And we appreciate the role that she must play to keep the state moving and to guide the state in the right direction. We also appreciate, value and intend to act on the important role of the Senate. It is a system of checks and balances in our government for a reason. So while we recognize that the governor is the chief executive, the Legislature also acts as a balance on one person deciding everything. In this case, we happen to disagree, and hopefully we’ll move forward quickly. But that’s the nature of government; so I don’t think anybody takes it personally.