State senators clashed Wednesday before approving the nomination of Democrat Andrew J. McDonald as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s choice to become a member of the state’s highest court.
The nomination was approved by 30 to 3 with three senators absent. Soon after, McDonald was approved by 125 to 20 in the state House of Representatives.
McDonald’s nomination to the court is rare because he has never served as a judge. If confirmed, he would be the first person to serve on the state’s highest court without judicial experience since former U.S. Attorney and former chief state’s attorney Richard Palmer was nominated by Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. nearly two decades ago.
McDonald, who turns 47 in March, has been controversial among some as one of the legislature’s chief proponents of gay marriage and the chief proponent for a bill that would have changed the financial authority within parishes of the Roman Catholic Church. That bill prompted a huge rally at the Capitol in 2009, and the measure – which became one of the most controversial in recent history at the legislature – was eventually withdrawn.
While two conservative Republicans spoke against McDonald on Wednesday, many other Republicans and Democrats in the 36-member Senate stood to say that McDonald has the intellect, temperment and life experience in both the legislative and executive branches to become successful as a justice on the court.
Sen. Michael McLachlan, a Danbury Republican, stood on the Senate floor to say that he wrote a hand-delivered letter to McDonald and asked him one question about the origination of Senate bill 1098. McLachlan said that he always understood that McDonald had written the bill, but he said that McDonald testified that the bill had actually been written by a constituent of his. McLachlan said that McDonald never responded to his letter.
McLachlan then asked Senator Eric Coleman, the co-chairman of the judiciary committee, if it was unusual for a candidate for a judgeship to fail to respond to a member of the judiciary committee.
“It sometimes does occur that responses to inquiries by judicial nominees are not addressed,” Coleman said.
As a member of the judiciary committee, McLachlan voted against McDonald last week for his views on Senate Bill 1098, saying that the bill “was a direct attack on the Catholic Church of the state of Connecticut.” McLachlan said that a legislator who wrote that bill “is not an appropriate candidate” for the state Supreme Court.
But Senate Majority Leader Marty Looney of New Haven said, “In all the years I’ve been in the General Assembly, I don’t think I’ve ever been happier or prouder” of a nominee to the state’s highest court.
Looney served for six years with McDonald’s mother on the tax-writing finance committee. “It’s unfortunate that the two of them were not able to serve together at the same time,” Looney said of McDonald and his mother. “The skills of an appellate judge are not necessarily the same skills of a trial judge. … Clearly, in our own state, we have three precedents.”
Looney named Chief Justice Ellen Ash Peters as a justice who had never served in the judicial branch. “That was a real break in precedent” when Peters was chosen by then-Gov. Ella Grasso.
He also named former Republican Gov. Thomas Meskill to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City, whom had never served as a judge. Looney noted that former Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Earl Warren was “never a judge at any level” before being nominated by President Eisenhower to the highest court position in the nation.
Looney, a Catholic, said that McDonald’s authorship of Senate Bill 1098 was not an attack on religious liberty and is “a complete distortion.” Instead, Looney said that McDonald was responding to cases of embezzlement and financial mismanagement within the Catholic Church.
During the two debates, none of the legislators mentioned a story – published at raisinghale.com – that said that McDonald “used a private email account in his official capacity as general counsel to Gov. Dannel Malloy on at least three occasions” that raised “questions about whether he used the account to evade Connecticut’s Freedom of Information law.”
On the Senate floor, President Pro Tem Donald Williams, the highest-ranking senator, said, “The fact that Andrew McDonald knows the law” from real-world experience as a longtime attorney will be a key factor in his ability to become a successful justice. McDonald has been “taking positions on tough issues” in the same way that a judge must do, he said.
“Knowing how the executive branch works will be a tremendous asset to the Supreme Court,” Williams said.
Sen. Joseph Markley, a conservative Republican from Southington who opposed McDonald, said, “I’ve heard nothing but positive things about him” regarding his intelligence and being able to work with people.
The bill regarding the Catholic Church and religious liberty was the most questionable regarding the Constitution “in living memory,” Markley said on the Senate floor.
“Senator McDonald’s outlook is not one that I would choose to see on the Supreme Court, and for that reason, I will oppose this nomination,” Markley said.
But Senator Kevin Witkos, who said he spoke only one other time on a judicial nominee, immediately stood to say that he supports McDonald. He said that generally ”I don’t believe a judge should be an activist. That is our role.”
“He said he will have the ability from being an activist and a legislator [to change to] a judge and an interpreter,” Witkos said of McDonald’s testimony in front of the judiciary committee last week. ”I think he’s an honorable man, a man of integrity.”
“Will he handle the case fairly? Absolutely,” said Sen. Steve Cassano, the former mayor of Manchester. “I think he’s a great choice. I think he will be a great judge.”
In the same way, Senate Republican deputy leader Len Fasano of North Haven said, “I have all the faith and credit that Andrew can uphold those responsibilities for as long as he serves on that bench.”
Sen. Robert Duff, a Norwalk Democrat, said that McDonald reminds him of former Republican Senator Robert Genuario of Norwalk as a person who will have experience in all three branches of state government – legislative, executive, and judicial. Duff and McDonald both represented different parts of Darien in the state Senate.
“Many of us have a high respect for this nominee,” said Sen. Eric Coleman, the longtime co-chairman of the judiciary committee.
A graduate of Cornell University, McDonald graduated from UConn’s law school. He served as the chief legal counsel for the city of Stamford when Malloy was mayor, and he then became chief counsel again when Malloy took over as governor in January 2011.
McDonald is the son of Anne McDonald, a former state representative from Stamford who rose to become the co-chairwoman of the tax-writing finance committee.
Separately, McDonald had support around the Senate circle on a bipartisan basis.
“I stand in strong support of former Senator McDonald,” said Sen. John Kissel, the ranking Senate Republican on the judiciary committee. “Andrew was always approachable. … He went out of his way to be warm and loving to my family. … In his heart of hearts, while he is strong-willed, he is also fair-tempered and will listen to both sides. … I consider former Sen. McDonald a personal friend in many ways.”
Longtime Senator Gary LeBeau of East Hartford said that McDonald is “clearly one of the most intelligent men or women who have ever served in this chamber.”
Regarding the bill by McDonald on the Catholic Church, LeBeau said, “He was not proposing something new. He was proposing a change in something that already existed. … People beat the heck out of him on it. … It’s unfair now.”
The state legislature was also debating the nominations and renominations of 17 judges Wednesday. The judges did not face any major opposition in the legislature’s judiciary committee during a public hearing earlier this month.
The first roll call of the day in the state House of Representatives was on the nomination of the Hon. F. Herbert Gruendel on the appellate court, the state’s second-highest court. The vote, by 141 to 0 with 10 lawmakers absent, was the first on a new scoreboard in the historic Hall of the House.
“He’s one of the state’s most respected jurists,” said Rep. Lonnie Reed of Branford, Gruendel’s hometown. “His wife, Janice Gruendel, is one of our best-known and most passionate advocates of early education. … Public service is Judge Gruendel’s middle name.”
The House also briefly discussed the re-nomination of Judge John F. Cronan of Branford, a judge for the past eight years who served previously for 26 years as a criminal prosecutor and worked under the late Jack Bailey when he reigned as the chief state’s attorney. He was a familiar face at the Capitol as the legislative liaison for the division of criminal justice.
“We have a wealth of talent in Branford, and Judge Cronan and his wife were summer residents and are now fulltime residents,” Reed said on the House floor. “He is a very charismatic and interesting judge.”
Without any opposition, Cronan was approved by 142 to 0 with nine members absent.
Upstairs in the Senate, Kissel said that he remembers the days when Cronan worked in the hallways of the Capitol as the liaison.
“It’s amazing that those eight years flew by so fast,” Kissel said of Cronan’s tenure as a judge.
Cronan was approved on a roll call vote in the Senate by 32 to 0 with four senators absent.
The Senate discussed the nomination of Judge Barbara M. Quinn, who is well known as the chief court administrator who oversees Superior Court judges and the judicial system. Quinn frequently testifies in front of the legislature’s judiciary committee and appropriations committee on various matters, including the annual judiciary budget. She serves in a high-profile position that was once held by Aaron Ment, a well-known jurist at the state Capitol. The administrator position is often deemed as the chief operating officer of the court system.
“She has done an incredible job as chief court administrator,” said Senator John Kissel of Enfield, the ranking Senate Republican on the judiciary committee. “She has always been accessible. … She’s unafraid to come and testify personally.”
The Senate also briefly discussed the nomination of Judge Kari Dooley of Sandy Hook, a former assistant U.S. attorney who is now assigned to the complex litigation docket at state Superior Court in Waterbury. Her nomination was referred to the consent calendar for non-controversial matters, as was the nomination of the chief court administrator.
Dooley, Quinn and others were approved by 32 to 0 with four senators absent. Those nominations were immediately sent to the House for approval.