Former Chief Justice William ‘Tocco’ Sullivan admitted to the legislature’s Judiciary Committee Wednesday that he made a mistake last year when he put a hold on a what he knew would be a controversial court decision, but said it wasn’t necessarily because he was trying to help Justice Peter T. Zarella succeed him.
He said he would have done it for any of the justices in the majority opinion. “I didn’t feel anyone should have to explain my decision,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan, who submitted his resignation the same day he put a hold on the case, authored the majority opinion that found court docket information is not subject to disclosure under the state’s Freedom of Information laws. While the decision was made it’s not being upheld by Supreme Court Justice David Borden, who is currently in charge of the judicial branch.
He said he thought it would be a “hot button issue,” especially with the media and that’s why he withheld it. In addition, “I thought I had that right,” since there are no judicial rules, laws, or anything written that prohibits a chief justice from withholding a case, he said. Sullivan is currently appealing the Judicial Review Council’s decision that found he violated at least two judicial cannons.
He said Wednesday he wasn’t going to hold the case forever. He said he intended to hold it until the legislature nominated Zarella to the chief justice position.
“I didn’t want Justice Zarella to take the heat,” Sullivan said.
That explanation didn’t fly with the chairmen of the Judiciary Committee. Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, said the case “would have been a huge factor in Zarella’s confirmation” because it wasn’t just any case. It was a case about the power of the judiciary. Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, said the case highlighted Zarella’s “judicial philosophy when it came to complying with open records,” and by-the-way Zarella signed onto the majority opinion. McDonald said Zarella had every right to write a concurring opinion like Justice Richard Palmer, but he chose not to.
Lawlor said Sullivan put the hold on the case to “make sure we didn’t know about it until it was too late.” Gov. M. Jodi Rell had written a letter to Lawlor and McDonald last year scolding them for not holding a hearing on Zarella’s nomination two days before the controversial court decision was released and five days before Zarella withdrew his name from consideration based on the events that transpired.
When his colleagues in the Supreme Court caught wind of the hold they told Sullivan they were going to bring the matter to the legislature, which they did. At that point Lawlor and McDonald invited Sullivan to testify before the committee about why he withheld the decision from the public and Sullivan declined. So for the first time in a long time the legislature issued a subpoena to compel Sullivan to testify.
Sullivan, who had already retired and assumed the title of senior justice, was successful in quashing the subpoena in trial court, but the issue was made moot for the time being when he agreed to testify Wednesday four months after the Judicial Review Council found he violated two canons of judicial ethics. Sullivan is appealing the Judicial Review Council’s decision, which would lead to a 15-day suspension.
Rep. Gail Hamm, D-East Hampton, asked why he was appealing the JRC’s decision. Sullivan said he thought the decision was wrong and “it’s my right.”
So “you did what you did because you could,” Hamm said. It’s that “sense of entitlement that has the people of this state very concerned.” Several Naugatuck Valley legislators defended Sullivan, who is from Waterbury.
Rep. Themis Klarides, R-Derby said if no rule was broken then you were left on your own to make a decision about what’s right and what is wrong and everyone knows hindsight is 20/20.
Sullivan refused to admit wrongdoing Wednesday, but apologized for his actions and their unintended consequences.
When asked by several legislators if he thought of the Judiciary Committee at all when he decided to put a hold on the decision, he said “I really didn’t give it a thought.”
McDonald told Sullivan he’s done “incredible damage to the judiciary and the legislature,” by doing what he’s done. Just because something isn’t written down doesn’t mean it wasn’t wrong, he said. He said Sullivan had always been “forthright” and “this just doesn’t seem to fit your character and everything you’ve done in your life.”
Lawlor said there will be legislation this year to address the issue of when and who can hold a court decision.