HARTFORD - A political battle that has developed in recent weeks over Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's nominee for chief justice of Connecticut's highest court reached the House of Representatives, where a narrow vote was expected Monday.
All but one Republican member voted against Andrew McDonald, currently an associate justice, in the first step of a two-step process.
However, Democrats, who hold a slim majority in the House, mustered enough support to overturn an unfavorable recommendation by the General Assembly's Judiciary Committee by a vote of 79-69 and allowed the debate on McDonald's nomination to continue.
If the House ultimately votes to confirm McDonald, he still would face a close vote in the coming days in the state Senate, where there is an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. One Democrat has already recused herself.
While McDonald's supporters called him a brilliant and fair-minded jurist, various Republicans during Monday's debate painted McDonald, a longtime friend of the governor and his former legal counsel, as a justice who cannot be trusted to recuse himself from ruling on policies made during Malloy's administration. They and Democratic Rep. Larry Butler, of Waterbury, questioned why McDonald, a former state legislator, voted in the majority in a 4-3 Supreme Court decision that effectively eliminated the state's death penalty. Malloy had signed the underlying law when McDonald was legal counsel.
“I'm voting no,” said Butler, whose younger brother was murdered in 1985. “If I could vote no a thousand times, I'd vote no a thousand times.”
But Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, vice chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said McDonald followed the rules of judicial conduct when he decided not to recuse himself and was obligated to hear the case.
“He followed the rule. He followed precedent,” he said, noting how a former associate dean at UConn Law School agreed with McDonald's decision.
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers dismissed claims by some Democrats that they oppose McDonald because he was nominated by a Democratic governor or because he is gay, accusations that have helped to fuel this bitter battle. If confirmed, McDonald would be the first openly gay state Supreme Court chief justice in the U.S.
“I'd like to make it clear that the sexual orientation of this or any nominee that comes before us is not a factor. Let me clarify that. We all want to see diversification in our judicial system,” said Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, the ranking House Republican on the Judiciary Committee.
This has become one of the most politically charged judicial nominations in recent state memory, complete with robocalls and TV ads trying to persuade lawmakers. Connecticut is among about a dozen states where judges are appointed, not elected, according to the American Bar Association.
Democrats and Republicans bemoaned how the state's judicial nomination process has become politicized, each blaming the other political party.