The dollars, cents and politics of new judges

Gov. M. Jodi Rell demonstrated a flash of defiance and a dash of irony Wednesday in nominating a new batch of judges that Democratic legislators insist the state cannot afford.

One of the nominees is her budget chief, Robert L. Genuario, who has been preaching to legislators the gospel of frugality. Now, he has to hope they don’t suddenly get religion.

But the Democratic co-chairmen of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee already are warning that the confirmation hearings of Genuario and the others will go beyond their legal qualifications.

Genuario and Rell file photo

Budget chief and Superior Court nominee Robert Genuario watches Gov. M. Jodi Rell speak (file photo)

Whether the state can afford 10 new judges at a time when tight budgets are forcing courthouse closures and a hiring freeze are relevant to the confirmation process, they said.

Sen. Andrew J. McDonald, D-Stamford, a judiciary co-chairman, said, “Ultimately, it is a determination for each legislator to make whether the individual nominee is qualified – or needed.”

And even the senior Republican on the committee, Rep. Arthur J. O’Neill of Southbury, says the state’s finances are fair game.

“I think it’s a legitimate question to ask, especially in the case of Genuario: Do you think government can afford to fill all these positions?” O’Neill said.

Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, D-East Haven, the other co-chairman, already has concluded the answer is no – unless Rell relents and increases funding for the courts.

Rep. John Geragosian, D-Britain, the co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said, “The governor is talking about closing courthouses. We need more judges?”

The Rell administration says that comment and others are a sign that the judicial nominees are about to become pawns in the months-long fight over the court’s budget.

“The appointment of qualified judges to the bench is one of the most important obligations we have as leaders in state government,” Rell said in an emailed statement. “It should not be subject to political gamesmanship or horse-trading.”

She urged that the nominees be considered on their merits.

“You do not ‘trade’ judges for something. You approve them because they are honorable, respected professionals,” she said. “There are 20 vacancies and I propose to fill just half of them. In this economic climate that is a prudent and fiscally responsible decision.”

For Rell, the court vacancies also are an opportunity to exercise a gubernatorial prerogative and reward two administration members with eight-year appointments to the bench as she nears retirement. She is not seeking re-election this fall.

One of her other nominees is John A. Danaher III, 59, of West Hartford, a Democrat and her commissioner of public safety. He is a former federal prosecutor who ended his federal career as interim U.S. attorney.

Genuario, 57, of Norwalk, is a Republican who has been the secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, which oversees the budget, since January 2005. He is a former state senator, well-regarded among legislators in both parties.

Court officials declined to comment Wednesday. They have been trying not to get caught up in a fight between the Republican governor and Democratic legislative majority, even with the judicial branch’s budget on the line.

“They are down about 250 marshals. They don’t have enough court interpreters. They don’t have enough court reporters. The clerk’s offices are impacted by early retirements and operationally the branch has been hobbled significantly,” McDonald said.

But Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, said that Chief Court Administrator Barbara Quinn recently told him that the courts’ long list of needs includes a half-dozen judges. A court official confirmed the conversation.

“I think there are a number of political angles to this,” McKinney said.

The nominations quickly became an issue in the race to succeed Rell as governor. Ned Lamont, one of the leading Democrats, condemned the appointments.

“At a time when Connecticut is facing a $3.5 billion budget deficit and more than 170,000 Connecticut residents are unemployed, the last thing our governor should be doing is nominating new people for high-paying state jobs with eight-year terms,” he said.

Superior Court judges are paid $146,780 annually.

O’Neill, who emphasized he did not speak for the House Republican caucus, said he understood that the dispute over the judges is part of a larger fight between the judicial and executive branches over restoring money to the courts’ budget.

But that doesn’t mean that the affordability of the new judges should be dismissed as just politics, not when legislators seem unable to trim spending, O’Neill said.

“I raise this question all the time. It’s a really big question, You can’t be generally in favor of reducing spending, but never in any specific case,” he said.

Genuario said he will come to his confirmation hearing prepared to talk about the law, his career as a lawyer – and the state budget.

“I will answer any questions put to me as honestly and accurately as I can,” Genuario said.

If confirmed to the bench, Genuario said he expected he could first finish helping Rell win passage of her final budget.

“I think that is something that could be worked out between the three branches” of government, Genuario said. Then he added, “It’s premature to worry about that.”