The House and the Senate reconfirmed Supreme Court Justice Richard Palmer Wednesday after an unusually difficult renomination hearing last month by the Judiciary Committee.
Judicial re-nominations, especially with respect to sitting state Supreme Court justices, are usually pro-forma affairs. But Palmer, the longest serving associate justice on Connecticut’s Supreme Court, has written or agreed with several controversial decisions by the court, including the majority decision to completely abolish the death penalty for all death row inmates in 2015.
The General Assembly prospectively abolished the death penalty in 2012, barring the execution of those convicted of capital offenses after April 25, 2012. At that time there were 11 men on death row and one of them, Eduardo Santiago, claimed “imposition of the death penalty would violate the state constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.”
Santiago’s appeal of his death sentence in the killing of Joseph Niwinski in December 2000 was pending when the legislature passed the law prospectively repealing the death penalty.
The legislative debate in 2012 focused on whether it would be constitutional to repeal it prospectively. Weighing heavily on their minds was the brutal 2007 murder of a Cheshire family and the fate of the two men convicted in the crime, Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes.
Dr. William Petit, whose wife and daughters were murdered by Komisarjevsky and Hayes, is now a sitting state representative from Plainville.
He voted against Palmer’s renomination Wednesday.
“I do not believe it is appropriate for judges, especially, Supreme Court justices, to legislate and attempt to set policy from the bench,” Petit said. “We expect our judges to fairly interpret our laws and not politicize their decisions. I also oppose this reconfirmation on the basis of his judicial demeanor.”
Palmer authored the decision in 2015 that reversed the death penalty for the 11 men on death row.
In the state Senate, Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, said she is supporting Palmer’s renomination because of his decision in support of gay marriage.
In 2008, Palmer wrote the majority decision in Kerrigan v. Connecticut Department of Public Health, which gave same sex couples the ability to marry in Connecticut.
Bye and her wife, Tracey, became the first same-sex couple in Connecticut to get married.
Palmer’s renomination was approved 101-46 in the House and 19-16 in the Senate.
Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford, said the Judiciary Committee’s vetting of Palmer was some of the “toughest, most searching and rigorous questioning” of a Supreme Court justice he’s seen in his 11 years in the legislature.
Some Republican lawmakers felt Palmer was taking on a more activist role on the court and attempting to legislate from the bench. They also were upset with some of the language he used in his decisions when referring to other justices on the court.
“When one justice infers another justice has no idea what he or she is doing, it raises a question of why that judge is sitting there,” Senate Republican President Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said.
He said the justices owe a greater responsibility to everyone in the legislature and the general public. He said he’s angry at the bickering between the justices that’s ending up in opinions.
“Enough’s enough,” Fasano said.
Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said Palmer has been attacked for some of his decisions, “as if he made those decisions unilaterally.” Looney said these were majority opinions of the court that were written by Justice Palmer.
He said in order to get his colleagues to sign onto those decisions, Looney said Palmer had to convince them his reasoning was sound and deserving of their support.
“What he has done in whatever case he has written a decision in, is part of a collegial process that involves a majority of the court,” Looney said.