Dozens from New Haven, including a group of students from James Hillhouse High School, turned out Friday to watch the legislature’s Judiciary Committee ask Appellate Court Justice Lubbie Harper Jr. questions regarding his nomination to the Supreme Court.
Harper, a Wilbur Cross basketball star and then legal counsel for the board of education, was nominated last month by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to fill a vacancy on the state Supreme Court allowing him to reach the pinnacle of his career, just two years shy of the mandatory retirement age for judges.
His nomination comes on the heels of last year’s controversy over former Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s decision to fill at least nine trial court vacancies with whites. Harper, 68, is African-American and the legislature’s Judiciary Committee has been working hard to foster diversity on the bench, although much of the judicial selection process remains veiled in secrecy. Harper will become the third black justice in the state high court’s history.
Over the past few years judicial confirmation hearings have been mired in controversy over everything from race to judicial jurisprudence and ethics, but Harper’s confirmation hearing was filled more with congratulations than hard questions. One man, Ronald Patterson, who felt Harper made a poor decision in his case, testified against him and urged the committee not to vote in favor of the nomination.
After giving his opening statement a handful of lawmakers including Rep. Patricia Dillon and Rep. Toni Walker congratulated Harper on his nomination, but didn’t ask him any hard questions about his judicial philosophy or temperament.
The praise for Harper wasn’t universal though.
Peter Wolfgang, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, said his organization opposes Harper’s nomination because he was the deciding vote in the 4 to 3 decision which made same-sex marriage legal in the state.
Wolfgang said Harper, as an Appellate Court judge, was asked to sit in on the case after Chief Justice Chase Rogers and Senior Justice William Sullivan recused themselves from the case.
“It’s the appearance of a political reward,” Wolfgang said of Harper’s nomination. “He imposed his definition of marriage on the state and shouldn’t be rewarded for it.”
The Kerrigan v. Commissioner of Public Health lawsuit was at the forefront of lawmakers minds when they found the courage to ask Harper a few questions about his judicial philosophy.
Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, asked Harper how he defines judicial restraint because many of his constituents don’t feel he exhibited it when he decided the same-sex marriage case.
“As a judge we have a responsibility to follow the state statutes in interpreting legislative intent,” Harper told Kissel. “I believe following the law as it’s written.”
Following up on Kissel’s line of questioning, Rep. Themis Klarides, R-Derby, asked Harper if he considers himself a strict constructionist or if there’s room for interpretation of the constitution.
Harper said if you view the constitution from the position of the drafters, “then I wouldn’t be here because I wasn’t a citizen.”
Harper said he does believe if you have a strong personal belief on a specific issue you shouldn’t risk hearing a case because it may influence you to impose more than case law, constitution, or statutes on a decision.
Rep. John Shaban, R-Redding, a new member of the Judiciary Committee asked for Harper’s thoughts on ballot initiatives at the state level. He said he knows Connecticut doesn’t have them but would like to know what adding them in may influence the judicial process.
Harper declined to answer because he said if it’s possible Connecticut adopts a ballot initiative then he may be asked in the future to rule on one.
His answer delighted Andre Sutton, one of the Hillhouse students, who said he enjoyed how Harper handled himself in the face of what was a potentially difficult question.
Ishtar Edwards, who is considering a career as a lawyer, said it was humbling to see a New Haven native get so far in life.
La Donte Holland said even though Harper went to Wilbur Cross, a Hillhouse rival on the athletic field, it’s nice to see New Haven be recognized.
The students came to watch Harper’s nomination hearing with their U.S. Government and Civics teacher Jack Paulishen, who said it fits into their studies of legislative checks and balances. He said it’s also nice for them to see a hometown boy at the pinnacle of the legal profession.
Harper’s nomination was approved by the committee Friday afternoon and will now need to be approved by the General Assembly.