(Updated) After nearly two hours of debate Monday on just one of Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s nine judicial nominees the legislature’s Judiciary Committee decided to postpone its vote as issues about that nominee’s qualifications and the budget were worked out behind closed doors.
The committee spent most of its time debating 39-year-old Laura Flynn Baldini, the first of the nine nominees on the list, before it decided to pull the plug. The fate of Baldini and the eight other nominees will continue to hang in the balance until the Black and Puerto Rican caucus gets what it wants—one minority judge.
“It was a serious error not including one minority nominee and has proved to be a substantial stumbling block,” Sen. Andrew McDonald, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Monday following the meeting. “We’re hopeful a solution can be worked out and we can move forward with the nominees.”
But the clock is ticking on the nominations and it’s possible the Judiciary Committee will be violating state statute if it fails to send its report on the nominees to the House by the end of the day tomorrow.
Rell’s office was not immediately available for comment on the matter. All nine of the nominees are white, which posed serious problems for the Black and Puerto Rican caucus members on the committee.
But House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero said the Black and Puerto Rican caucus is picking on the wrong governor.
During her tenure Rell, including the nine nominees and the one that withdrew, has nominated 86 individuals to the bench. Seventy-two were white, 12 were black and 2 were Hispanic, according to a report by the Office of Legislative Research.
Former Gov. John Rowland, who was in office for three more years than Rell, nominated a total of 114 individuals. Ninety-seven of them were white, 13 were black, two were Hispanic, and two were Asian American.
Rell has agreed to put forth additional minority judicial nominees as early as September, Cafero said. But it’s likely that won’t be good enough for the members of the Black and Puerto Rican caucus who want Rell to appoint a minority to the tenth spot, vacated by one of her nominees after a Hartford Courant editorial criticized his appointment.
There’s nine days left until the end of the legislative session and the nominations of these judges should be routine, Cafero said. “Now the whole place has come to a grinding halt.”
Monday’s House session was canceled as legislative leaders and Rell tried to reach a compromise. By the end of the day after most lawmakers had gone home it looked like no compromise had been brokered.
The Black and Puerto Rican caucus members said they attempted to speak with Rell before she even made the appointments and urged her to include one of the eight minority candidates approved by the Judicial Selection Commission for a spot on the bench. Each of the nominees must be approved by the Judicial Selection Commission before the governor submits them to the Judiciary Committee for a public hearing.
Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, said he was disturbed by the things he didn’t hear Baldini answer last week, such as questions about habeas corpus reform. “She didn’t know what we were talking about,” Holder-Winfield said.
“She didn’t know what mandatory minimum sentences were,” Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, said in reference to Baldini, the youngest of the nine nominees. Walker said she appreciated that Baldini wanted to be a judge to give back to her community, but didn’t think her 12 to 13 years of lawyering gave her enough experience. Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, wondered about Baldini’s political connections. He said she went through the Judicial Selection process very quickly.
Rep. Don Clemons, D-Bridgeport, said the Black and Puerto Rican caucus felt there was a disparity in the racial make-up of the nominees. There’s concerns about making sure those that sit on the bench reflect the racial diversity of the state itself, he said.
Rep. Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said she thinks the Judiciary Committee should vote on the nominees and stressed that postponing the vote means “nine people’s lives are hanging in the balance.”
Sen. Ed Gomes, D-Bridgeport, said the lives of his constituents hang in the balance everyday when they go to court and wants to see a bench that reflects the citizenry of the state.
Rep. Bruce Morris, D-Norwalk, wanted to know why people of color linger on the Judicial Selection Commission list for years and many of the nominees put forth by Rell, including her budget director Robert Genuario, get approved in less than six months.
Members of the Black and Puerto Rican caucus did apologize to David Sheridan of Manchester, another of the nominees, who showed up to watch Monday’s hearing. Many of the members felt he was more than qualified to sit on the bench and even took the time to let him know that Monday’s filibuster wasn’t about him.
Still others wondered what role the Judiciary Committee plays in the process. Is it just supposed to send the House a report of the nominees or should it be considering other things like the impact the nine new judges would have on the budget?
Rep. T.R. Rowe, R-Trumbull, said he would vote the nominees out of the committee, but doesn’t believe the courthouses need nine new judges.
“I don’t think there is a pressing need for new judges at this time,” Rowe said. “I don’t know if I’d be voting for this on the House floor.”
Sen. Paul Doyle, D-Wethersfield, expressed similar concerns about the fiscal impact of the new judges.
McDonald and Rep. Michael Lawlor, said there could be a vote on the nominees as early as tomorrow.