House Democrats oppose Rell’s judicial nominees, citing budget cuts

A budget fight with constitutional overtones escalated Tuesday as legislators pressured Gov. M. Jodi Rell to withdraw nine judicial nominations until the courts get increased funding.

A majority of House members signed a letter opposing confirming any new judges, effectively holding the nominations hostage until Rell relents on budget cutbacks.

The letter was circulated by Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, D-East Haven, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who says that the courts cannot afford the new judges.

“This is not some theoretical problem. They are shutting down courthouses,” Lawlor said.

Tensions have been growing between the executive, legislative and judicial branches since Rell used to her authority to unilaterally cut the court budget by $6 million.

Court officials, who say they were not consulted about the cuts, now are in the process of closing courthouses in Windham, Bristol and Norwalk, plus nearly one-third of the state’s law libraries.

Lawlor and Sen. Andrew J. McDonald, D-Stamford, the other Judiciary co-chairman, said the nominees should not be subjected to confirmation hearings until the budget issue is resolved. The hearings are scheduled for Friday.

“They are not going to be approved,” Lawlor said.

“Obviously, the choice is hers,” McDonald said.

Rell’s office refused to comment on the letter. She nominated 10 new judges last month, provoking claims that the court system could not afford to pay them. One of the nominees withdrew Monday for unrelated reasons.

Rep. Arthur J. O’Neill, R-Southbury, the ranking Republican on Judiciary, said the Democrats were playing a new game of brinksmanship by threatening to block the nomination of judges.

“I think that’s a little dangerous. It changes the rules of the game,” O’Neill said. “The judicial nominations become pawns in the conflict over the budget.”

Lawlor said about 90 of the 114 Democrats in the 151-member House have signed a letter asking House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, to refuse to hold a vote on any of the nominees until the budget crisis is resolved. Last month, Lawlor proposed a bill giving the judicial department a measure of fiscal independence.

One irony in the dispute: one of the nominees is Rell’s popular budget chief, former state Sen. Robert L. Genuario, 57, of Norwalk.

For Rell, the court vacancies 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.

The Democrats said they have no quarrel with Rell’s choice of nominees.

“It’s not about them,” Lawlor said.

He said Rell should withdraw the nominations and then re-submit them this summer if the budget is resolved. The Democratic legislature is not trying to stop the lame-duck Republican governor from a last round of judicial appointments, he said.

Last month, Rell 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.”