Former federal prosecutor Nora Dannehy offered insight during a Wednesday hearing on her nomination to the Connecticut Supreme Court into her decision to resign from a high-profile investigation of an FBI probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Gov. Ned Lamont nominated Dannehy, his former general counsel, to fill a vacancy on the state Supreme Court earlier this month. She received the approval of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee on a bipartisan vote following the hearing and is expected to be considered for final confirmation next week.
During the morning hearing in Hartford, lawmakers questioned Dannehy on a variety of issues including her 2020 departure from an inquiry into how federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies came to investigate whether Russian entities interfered in the 2016 election.
Speaking publicly about her resignation for the first time, Dannehy told lawmakers she quit the probe due to actions by former President Donald Trump’s Attorney General, William Barr, who pressured investigators to potentially release an incomplete and misleading report.
“I simply couldn’t be part of it and so I resigned,” Dannehy said, telling the panel that Barr’s comments suggesting he might release a draft report just months before the 2020 election departed from long standing DOJ principles. “It was the most difficult personal and professional decision I’ve had to make.”
Dannehy served in a leadership position on the Russian inquiry under special counsel John Durham, a former U.S. Attorney for the District of Connecticut. Her comments Wednesday largely confirm reporting by the New York Times suggesting she left the post amid disputes about prosecutorial ethics.
On Wednesday, Dannehy said she raised her concerns to Durham before resigning but questioned the extent to which those concerns impacted the DOJ’s decision making.
“I would be naive to think I really had any influence over the Attorney General of the United States,” she said.
Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, seized on the comment later in the hearing, telling Dannehy she will be required to influence her colleagues on the Supreme Court as they consider legal decisions.
“Will you be able to, like, duke it out with these folks who have been sitting over there for years now because you believe this is your opinion of the case?” Kissel asked. “I don’t expect you to sell yourself out, but are you going to be able to hold your own?”
Dannehy reassured the senator she would stand her ground and qualified her earlier comments.
“When I said, ‘Far be it from me to influence the attorney general,’ I didn’t mean that I didn’t raise my concerns and I didn’t mean that there wasn’t shouting at certain times. I just didn’t change it and that’s why I resigned,” she said.
Although Dannehy said shouting was not “her style,” she told the panel she would make her thoughts on judicial matters known.
“I tend to be on the quiet side, but if I believe in something and I think it’s the right way to go, you can ask a lot of FBI agents, a lot of [Internal Revenue Service] agents, I know how to make my point, I know how to stick with my point and I know how to change minds,” she said. “I’m not going to tell you I’m always successful but I’m up for the task.”
Dannehy has had a long legal career in both the public and private sector. She was the first woman to serve as U.S. Attorney for the District of Connecticut and led prosecution of the corruption case against former Gov. John G. Rowland. She was a deputy attorney general under former Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen, and worked as an associate general counsel for United Technology.
Her nomination represents Lamont’s second attempt to fill a vacancy on the high court left by former Justice Maria Araújo Kahn, who resigned earlier this year after being confirmed to serve as a judge in a federal appeals court.
Lamont’s first nomination was Sandra Slack Glover, appellate chief of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Connecticut. Glover withdrew her nomination after it became clear she lacked support in the Judiciary Committee, in part due to her decision to sign a 2017 letter endorsing current U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett for a post on an appellate court.
Barrett’s eventual role in overturning Roe v. Wade, through the controversial Dobbs decision, colored much of Glover’s confirmation hearing in May.
The Dobbs decision overturning national abortion rights was also the subject of discussion during Dannehy’s hearing because she listed the ruling on a questionnaire as an example of the Supreme Court getting a decision wrong.
“First and foremost, they took away an individual right and that is — I don’t think has ever been done before,” she said of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. “Secondly,… they turned their back on precedent and finally, they tethered individual rights to a historical perspective.”
The answer drew some criticism from some Republican legislators, who argued the decision represented an affirmation of states’ rights. However, Dannehy was largely praised by members of both sides of the aisle during Wednesday’s proceedings.
Meanwhile, Dannehy’s professional background as a former prosecutor has raised concerns among some, including a group called The People’s Parity Project, which has pushed for more professional diversity among judges in Connecticut courts.
Near the end of the Judiciary Committee’s meeting, Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, announced she would vote against Dannehy in order to flag the judicial diversity issue.
Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat who co-chairs the committee and has raised similar concerns in the past, told the panel he believed the governor’s office understood that Connecticut’s judicial bench required more diversity in future nominations.
“I believe those comments have been heard and are being taken seriously,” Winfield said. “I believe there’s a new understanding of the importance of this stuff to some of the people who are involved.”