April 26, 2010
VOTE ON JUDGE-NOMINEES POSTPONED; LEGISLATORS QUESTION
QUALIFICATIONS OF 39-YEAR-OLD LAWYER TO BE STATE JUDGE
By Christopher Keating, Hartford Courant
A bitter dispute over the state budget and the nomination of nine judges brought the state Capitol to a screeching halt Monday as a scheduled session of the House was canceled.
Democrats and Republicans are locked in a clash over politics and money - and some lawmakers say the future judges have become political pawns who have become entangled in the swirling Capitol maelstrom.
The future of the nominees was thrown into doubt when the legislature's judiciary committee postponed any vote on their nominations. The postponement came at about 2:10 p.m., and the committee will not meet again until Tuesday.
The committee's lack of action came after a long debate about the qualifications of Laura Flynn Baldini, a Yale-educated Republican who at age 39 was the youngest person nominated this year for a judgeship by Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell.
Multiple Democratic legislators expressed concerns that Baldini has only 12 years as a lawyer and questioned whether she is qualified to be a judge. The members of the legislature's Black and Latino Caucus have also expressed concerns that all nine nominees are white, and that none of them are African-American or Latino. While Rell makes the final nominations, four of the nine nominees were selected by the Democratic leaders of the House and state Senate.
The lack of action boiled over into frustration as lawmakers said they wasted a crucial day as they speed toward a state-mandated adjournment May 5 for the regular session.
"I'm dumbfounded," said House Republican leader Lawrence Cafero of Norwalk. "I've never seen anything like it - lack of leadership. Chaotic."
Cafero said the legislature is clearly dysfunctional, but House Speaker Christopher Donovan of Meriden strongly rejected that characterization. Instead, he said he is not giving up on votes on the judges and the proposed $19 billion state budget before May 5.
"We'll meet Saturday and Sunday if we have to," Donovan told reporters. "We still have time left. Things can turn around here real quick."
Republicans said the judicial nominees have become political pawns of the state budget process after some Democrats said they might withhold support for the judges because of their concerns about the state's ongoing fiscal problems and looming budget deficits. Republicans have rejected the arguments about the fiscal situation in the courts, saying that Rell is seeking to fill only nine of an expected 20 vacancies for the Superior Court. If more judges retire, those numbers could increase.
"Using judicial appointments as a budget pawn, I have grave concerns about that," said Sen. Michael McLachlan, a Danbury Republican.
Rell's nominees ran into a major political buzz saw Monday in a public clash on budget and diversity issues. But Baldini clearly came under the most fire of any nominee.
A 1992 graduate of Yale University who later attended law school at Seton Hall University, Baldini was named as a "Super Lawyers Rising Star" for up-and-coming lawyers who are under the age of 40. A justice of the peace in West Hartford for the past five years, Baldini runs a law firm that bears her name in Farmington. Baldini also has ties to Rell, sitting at the same table with her at the Connecticut Convention Center on St. Patrick's Day this year for a fundraiser for Catholic schools. Baldini is a major fundraiser and chairs the group that runs the highly popular breakfast, which draws current and former governors, candidates running for governor, politicians, media personalities, and business executives.
Rep. Toni E. Walker, a New Haven Democrat who was among the first to speak on the judiciary committee Monday, said Baldini "may be ready in a couple of years, but she needs to get exposure" in the legal world.
Regarding diversity, Walker later said, "As a black woman, we are still falling very short in that regard. ... The message has to be that the process is flawed. ... With that, I have no apologies for anything that we are saying."
The questions swirling around Baldini's qualifications prompted Rep. Gary Holder Winfield of New Haven to ask what are the exact criteria for a person to become a state judge.
"It's a decision each legislator has to make for himself or herself," responded Sen. Andrew McDonald, the co-chairman of the judiciary commitee. "There's no criteria, per se. It's ultimately a political appointment and a political decision made by this body."
Winfield and others wondered how Baldini rose so quickly when others wait as long as 10 years between their application to the Judicial Selection Commission and then their nomination as a judge.
"I was disturbed by some of the things I heard her not answer," Winfield said. "When asked about habeas reform, the prospective nominee seemed not to know" what the legislators were talking about.
Several legislators said they had problems with Baldini's answers about being a Spanish translator in court when she did not seem to have a strong grasp of the Spanish language.
"It's like me forgetting to speak English," said Rep. Ernie Hewett, a New London Democrat. "She's only been on the list for six months. ... Just to run for attorney general, you need 10 years of experience. And she's got 12, and she's going to be a judge."
During the questioning of Baldini at a public hearing last week, Hewett had asked Baldini about her experiences dealing with the minority community. He then spoke in general about diversity.
"If you know how many black couples are living at the end of the street, you're not living in a diverse community," Hewett said.
He said later that the committee has members from every ethnic group and that the courts need more diversity on the bench.
"Something is wrong with the process. You just can't give me a bone every now and then," Hewett said.
Sen. Edwin Gomes of Bridgeport said he wondered "how a person moves up that quickly" when some candidates remain on the Judicial Selection Commission's list for a decade. "She knows nothing about habeas. She has no opinion on the death penalty."
Gomes said he did not see "proof that she was ready to be a judge."
At 39, Baldini has three sons with the oldest turning nine years old this week. A former member of Yale's varsity tennis team, she won the G. Gilbert Shepard Award for athletics and leadership during her undergraduate days and is currently an active member of the alumni association. Her current legal practice focuses on landlord-tenant disputes, residential real estate closings, commercial litigation and personal disputes, debt recovery, and personal injuries, among others.
"I think she is qualified," said Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, the committee's longtime co-chairman. "Judicial Selection said she is qualified. ... She's the youngest, by far, and she's the least experienced [of the nine nominees]. I don't read too much into that."
"There are a lot of people being held hostage. The black community and the Hispanic community are being held hostage as we try to get people on the bench," Gomes said, adding that the caucus had offered a minority candidate for a judgeship who was ignored. "The reason why I'm venting this way is because I've listened to a lot of stuff ... and have seen a particularly bad judge being voted on [in the past]. Let's not talk about putting these people's lives in suspension."
Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, a Hartford Democrat, was also concerned about Baldini's statements about being a Spanish translator in court.
"Most of the answers were 'I don't recall, I don't recall, I don't recall,' " Gonzalez said. "I was surprised [about asking Baldini a question in Spanish]. I thought she would answer me back in Spanish."
Rep. Bruce V. Morris, a Norwalk Democrat, said Baldini needs "more exposure" in the courts, particularly in the criminal area.
"Her answers were less than enlightening," Morris told his colleagues. He later said, "We don't have to rush this today."
Sen. Paul R. Doyle, a Wethersfield Democrat, said he did not have a problem with the qualifications of any of the nominees Monday. But he said that the judges should not be approved because the state is facing a projected deficit of $725 million in the 2011 fiscal year and more than $3 billion in the 2012 fiscal year.
"Today, I cannot support any of the nine new judges - primarily on fiscal grounds," Doyle said. "At this point in time, it's inappropriate to be creating new judges."
"I don't know that we need nine new judges," said Rep. T.R. Rowe, a Trumbull Republican who is known as one of the most conservative legislators. "I don't think there is a pressing need for new judges at this time. ... Attorney Baldini and eight others are qualified. ... Can we afford nine additional judges at the cost we know that they bring?"
Rep. Mary Fritz, a veteran Wallingford Democrat, said she was "very, very impressed" with the qualifications of Baldini and the other nominees. But she, too, said she has fiscal concerns and could vote later on the House floor against the judges.
Rep. Charles "Don" Clemons, a Bridgeport Democrat who serves as chairman of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, said the caucus had not had the chance to sit down with the Democratic leadership or the governor's office to help ensure that minority candidates are nominated to the bench.
"I would like to see more of an extended opportunity to sit down at the table in the future and help with the vetting process," Clemons said.
During the questions, Republican Rep. Debralee Hovey of Monroe questioned the behind-the-scenes deal to approve the judge-nominees in return for increased funding for the judicial branch that would prevent three courthouses from being closed.
"While there are deals made, I believe it is crass and beneath this committee," Hovey said.
"You have nine people's lives that are hanging in the balance," said Rep. Themis Klarides, an attorney and deputy House GOP leader.
Rep. Kevin Roldan, a Hartford Democrat, said that Baldini is qualified.
Some legislators said they were unsure when the House might convene Monday. Rep. Stephen Dargan, a veteran West Haven Democrat, predicted correctly early in the day that the House would not be in session at all Monday.
While many lawmakers questioned the racial diversity of the group, McDonald also questioned the lack of geographical diversity. Three of the nine nominees are from West Hartford, while two others are from East Hartford and Manchester. Only one is from Fairfield County.