Rell, legislature break judicial deadlock

Nine judicial nominations threatened by a court funding fight will go forward as a result of an agreement reached by Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s administration and the judicial branch.

The administration has agreed to forgo $7.8 million in cuts that were anticipated by the end of the fiscal year and to pledge a more collaborative approach on fiscal issues; a $5 million cut will stand.

“I think the judicial branch feels they need to have some autonomy,” Rell said. “I can certainly understand that.”

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Gov. M. Jodi Rell: ‘I am not in a confrontation.’ (Mark Pazniokas)

Legislators had threatened to block the confirmations indefinitely.

“There are two issues. One is process. The other is resources,” said Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, D-East Haven, the co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which is holding confirmation hearings Friday on the nine.

Rell downplayed the dispute.

“I am not in a confrontation. I have submitted names. I have worked with the Judiciary Committee to try to find language to show that the judicial branch is treated as fairly as the legislative branch and the administration when it comes to budgets,” Rell said at midday Thursday, before a deal was finalized.

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, has suggested that the Democratic legislature was more interested in blocking judicial appointments by a lame-duck Republican governor than it was in assuring judicial independence and resources.

Rell declined to make the same accusation.

“I don’t think they are trying to make the governor stop judiciary appointments, honestly,” Rell said. “Is that a sidebar to this? It could very well be.”

A spokeswoman for the courts said under the agreement with the Rell administration, no money will be added to court budget, but a scheduled cut in “other expenses” will not occur.

The agreement calls for the passage of legislation that would establish new budgeting procedures involving the judicial branch. Court officials had complained that as a separate branch of government they should be able to propose a budget to the legislature without revisions by executive branch.

Lawlor and Sen. Andrew J. McDonald, D-Stamford, the other co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the committee is expected to vote Monday on the confirmation of the appointees. Final confirmation by the full legislature will take place after the budgeting legislation is passed and signed into law.

If there are no significant cuts in the next fiscal year, judicial officials said, the court system will drop plans to close a courthouse in Bristol and law libraries in Bridgeport, Hartford and Litchfield.

“I am not proposing any additional cuts to judiciary, but the budget process is still a work in progress right now,” Rell said.

Court officials also are working with the Department of Public Works to renegotiate an existing lease for the juvenile court in Willimantic, which was to relocate to another facility, taking some of space that had been used by a law library. If successful, they will reopen the library.

Law libraries in Milford and Norwich will remain closed, and the Norwalk juvenile court still will close as planned on July 1.

“We’re happy,” said Melissa Farley, a judicial official.

Without a resolution to the court funding fight, legislators had threatened to block the confirmation of nine appointments to the Superior Court. They included Rell’s budget chief, Robert L. Genuario, and her commissioner of public safety, John A. Danaher III.

Legislators said that the courts could not afford the judges, given $12.8 million in cuts that were to take effect by the end of the fiscal year in June.

“All nine will be appointed,” Lawlor said.

Lawlor and McDonald said the agreement will dramatically change the nature of the confirmation hearings for the nine.

“The hearings will be a lot less contentious than it was going to be,” Lawlor said.

A majority of the House signed a letter Tuesday urging Rell with withdraw the nine nominations until the budget dispute was resolved.

Rell refused, but negotiations began soon after to resolve the deadlock.

“The tempest in a tea cup seems to be over,” said Rep. Arthur J. O’Neill, R-Southbury, a ranking Republican on the committee.

The dispute was the second in a week over judicial appointments. On Monday, a 10th nominee, Assistant State’s Attorney Brian Leslie, withdrew after quiet warnings by legislators that he would not be confirmed.

Leslie was accused of wrongful prosecution by a doctor in a Medicaid fraud case. The state settled the doctor’s claim for $725,000.

On Thursday, as she attended an event at the Connecticut Convention Center, Rell said Lesilie had disclosed the settlement to her office as part of the vetting process.

“He had disclosed everything that was in his background,” Rell said. “I had our attorneys go over it. It has been a while since I reviewed that background check, but from our review they felt he had disclosed everything.”

Rell said she did not recall if her staff flagged the Medicaid case as a potential confirmation issue.

“I don’t remember that there was a red flag raised,” she said. “But it’s been a long time. I don’t remember any red flag.”