Connecticut is starting to resemble Washington, D.C., in at least one way — and yeah, that’s bad.
Andrew McDonald, former legislator and current associate justice of the State Supreme Court, ought to have been a shoo-in for the position of Chief Justice. After all, he’d been confirmed with bipartisan support when first nominated to the court in 2013. And yet, his confirmation road has been anything but smooth.
Republicans on the Judiciary Committee grilled McDonald for more than 13 hours before the committee split 20-20 on his nomination, which returns an “unfavorable” recommendation to the rest of the legislature. McDonald now faces deep trouble in the evenly divided state senate, where Democratic Sen. Gayle Slossberg has announced she’ll recuse herself from the vote due to a personal conflict with McDonald. Republicans, if they stick together, could therefore sink the nomination.
Okay, let’s hear them tell it. Judiciary Committee member Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, says that he voted against McDonald because “[T]here are concerns about importing facts that aren’t part of the record and maybe taking a position that is moving the state in a direction that’s beyond what’s normally done in decision making.”
This gibberish translates roughly to “He made some decisions I don’t like.” Sen. Kissel is supposedly a moderate, but I’m having a harder and harder time seeing that lately.
Other arguments against McDonald were that he is a longtime friend of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, that he is a “judicial activist,” whatever that means, and that he somehow doesn’t have enough experience despite having authored approximately 100 opinions for the court, and having the rare distinction of having served in all three branches of government. In a better time this would be a unique strength.
The Republicans have yet to offer much in the way of actual evidence that McDonald is somehow unfit for the post, which leaves us with the unpalatable idea that they’re messing with the judiciary for partisan gain during an election year.
Here’s the scam: they don’t want Dan Malloy, who they hate, to get to appoint any more of his friends and fellow Democrats to anything, ever. If McDonald is confirmed, then another seat on the court opens up and Malloy would get to nominate someone else. This is all really normal but Republicans want to force the issue.
The reason is because this is an election year in which Republicans could actually win the governorship and control of the legislature. Then they could put whoever they wanted on the court: someone with the nickname “Hangin’ Judge” would be a good start, I assume. If they can scuttle McDonald’s nomination, then that’s one fewer seat Malloy would get to fill.
That seems depressingly normal for Washington, D.C., where the GOP in the U.S. Senate stole away a seat on a very partisan Supreme Court. Everything in the nation’s capital is furiously partisan, because party has become synonymous with culture, and extremists have convinced the two big cultural blocs in this country that anything less than all-out political war is cultural treason.
It’s not normal for Connecticut. The fault lines between cultures don’t run so deep here, and the parties often find that they have more in common than elsewhere in the country. Connecticut Republicans have traditionally been a lot more moderate than their counterparts west of the Hudson, because that’s how they can be elected. There are differences, sure, and there are fights, but there’s still a sense that we’re all on the same team. Mostly.
That’s allowed our institutions of government to actually function. The apolitical nature of the judicial confirmation process means that we haven’t completely hobbled our courts and that the state judiciary has a legitimacy that the Supreme Court is starting to lose.
A group of law school deans, attorneys, and bar associations wrote in an alarmed letter to the committee that “[r]eviewing judicial decisions through too partisan a lens and with political purposes in mind poses risks to the independence of our judiciary and to our system of checks and balances.” They’re right, of course.
The federal government is slowly imploding before our eyes. We have to keep our state’s democratic institutions intact because — well, because if we don’t, what’s going to be left to save us?
I don’t know what’s going to happen with McDonald’s confirmation. I do know that trying to turn Hartford into Washington is an ominous sign for what a GOP-controlled government might look like next year.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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