Legislators on Friday night questioned the state pension rules that currently allow judges to serve relatively short terms – such as two or three years – and then receive pensions of more than $100,000 per year after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70.
Some lawmakers believe that the system should be changed because other state employees who work for short periods are not even vested in the system.
The flashpoint in the House was Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s nomination of 66-year-old attorney TImothy D. Bates of Noank as a Superior Court judge.
Rep. Steven Mikutel, a Griswold Democrat, said he had to “really lay it on the line here” regarding the pensions because he has constituents with huge medical bills and other financial problems who cannot provide for their retirements. He said he could not face his constituents while voting for potential judges who will earn pensions of more than $100,000 per year.
“They live on the edge – on the edge. How would you like to live on the edge every day?” Mikutel asked with his voice rising during a fiery speech on the House floor. “There’s something wrong and unfair with that system. … It’s about a rotten system. It’s a system that should never have been put in place. We should reform that system before we confirm any more judges.”
He added, “If we change the system, I will vote for these judges. … Why don’t we do the amendment before we confirm judges? It’s not about punishing individuals. The system demands change. Now!”
Rep. Arthur O’Neill, the dean of the House Republican caucus and a longtime member of the judiciary committee, said that the pension rules have nothing to do with the qualifications of the judicial candidates.
“It’s up to us to decide whether we want to change that pension system,” O’Neill said.
House Republican leader Larry Cafero of Norwalk said that anyone who is qualified can apply to the state’s Judicial Selection Commission for an interview. If the commission passes on the person’s qualifications, the person then is placed on a list that goes to the governor for selection.
“I don’t know Attorney Bates,” Cafero said, adding that he assumed that Bates is qualified because he has passed through the system.
“I’m blessed to have a father who is 94 and a mother who is whatever,” said Cafero, who is 56 years old. “If you’re watching Mom, I’m not saying.”
Regarding the pension system, Cafero added, “Is it something we should change? Absolutely we should change it. … I bet a lot of us didn’t even know it was the system until the nominee Avallone. We didn’t know.”
“Folks, don’t take it out on the person,” Cafero told his colleagues. “I don’t think that’s fair. … They have no control over their age and they have no control over when they’re going to get picked. … We cannot punish them for the system that we have. It’s a ridiculous system. It doesn’t make any sense. … I’m even more embarrassed to say I didn’t know it was that way until about four months ago.”
Cafero said that he will offer an amendment, at a later date, to change the system and offer pensions on a pro-rated basis, depending on the candidate’s age.
“Hold them accountable for the things they had control over, not the things they don’t,” Cafero said.
But Rep. Cecelia Buck-Taylor, a New Milford Republican who graduated from Fordham University Law School and opposed Bates, said, “I wasn’t elected as a state representative to protect a person’s desire to be a judge. … Nobody who is standing here is saying these people aren’t qualified.”
Rep. Christina Ayala, a Bridgeport Democrat, told her colleagues Friday evening that said she could not support the 66-year-old Bates as a Superior Court judge because of her concerns about the pension system. Bates is a registered Democrat.
“I know this gentleman is very well qualified, but I will not be able to support him,” Ayala said on the House floor.
Another controversial nomination was that of 66-year-old Democrat Anthony Avallone, a former state senator and former co-chairman of the legislature’s judiciary committee. A close friend of then-Democratic majority leader William DiBella, Avallone was well known in the halls of the Capitol from 1983 through 1993.
Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, the ranking House Republican on the judiciary committee who supported Avallone, said Avallone would be “an asset on the bench.”
The Avallone nomination was very brief because lawmakers had already debated the pension issue.
Avallone was approved by the House on a bipartisan basis by 97 to 30 with 23 members absent and not voting at about 8 p.m. Friday.
Rep. Cecelia Buck-Taylor, a Republican, said that Manchester Mayor Leo V. Diana was “grilled and cross-examined” during his confirmation hearing at the judiciary committee and handled himself well.
Diana was approved by 125 to 4 on a bipartisan basis on Friday night.
In one of the closest votes, the House approved the nomination of former state Sen. Steven Spellman by 87 to 42 with 21 members absent.