HARTFORD -- Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy's pick for chief justice of Connecticut's highest court cleared the House of Representatives with the narrowest of votes on Monday, advancing the nomination to the Senate, where its fate remains uncertain.
The House voted 75-74 in favor of Andrew McDonald's confirmation, with a handful of Democrats joining nearly every Republican in opposition. McDonald is currently an associate justice on the State Supreme Court, a position he's held for the past five years.
McDonald is expected to 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, making Republican support for his confirmation necessary.
"Based on the merits of his nomination, Justice McDonald should be our next Chief Justice," said Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven. "It remains to be seen if the Senate Republicans will choose a partisan path in order to reject this thoroughly qualified and historic nominee."
If confirmed, McDonald would be the first openly gay state Supreme Court chief justice in the U.S.
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.
"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.
“Justice McDonald is a consummate jurist who has earned the respect of legal professionals across the state for his exceptional ability to understand, analyze, research, and evaluate legal issues,” Gov. Malloy said. “He has a deep understanding of the role and the impact that the justice system has on the everyday lives of Connecticut residents, and the value of ensuring equality and fairness through the court’s many responsibilities.
I am grateful that Justice McDonald has agreed to accept the challenge to serve as the lead Administrator for the judicial branch, and I am pleased that the House of Representatives has voted to confirm him. Justice McDonald’s nomination now moves forward to the Senate for their consideration. A consideration that should be based on a substantive and objective assessment of facts and not based upon a political calculation.”
Lt. Gov. Wyman:
“I applaud the House for their leadership,” Lt. Gov. Wyman said. “Justice McDonald is a committed public servant and a trusted jurist—he is the right choice to lead the Court. I urge the Senate to follow suit and confirm his nomination.”