At the end of every session, power shifts to the minority

With the legislature’s adjournment deadline of May 5 fast approaching, the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus suddenly found itself with new political muscle Monday.

Its members staged an ad hoc filibuster over Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s nomination of 10 white lawyers to the Superior Court and pressed for Rell to nominate a minority lawyer.

Their same request weeks ago went unnoticed and unanswered, but now the Rell administration is listening carefully and working to satisfy their concerns, legislators said.

Such is the magic of the last days of every session. When the clock strikes 12 on the final night, all legislation and nominations still awaiting action automatically die. So, a willingness to delay with long debates or other dilatory tactics becomes a potent weapon.

Like Cinderella at the ball, every legislator can become a king or queen, if only for a brief time.

“After a while, the leverage disappears,” said Rep. Arthur J. O’Neill, R-Southbury, the longest-serving Republican, “if it’s not resolved by the end of the session.”

The legislature’s Judiciary Committee postponed a confirmation vote Monday on an all-white class of judicial nominees after black and Puerto Rican legislators seemed as though they would endlessly debate the qualifications and the experience of the first nominee on the agenda, 39-year-old Laura Flynn Baldini.

Black and Puerto Rican Caucus members on the committee said they had no formal plan to filibuster, but one developed as they raised questions and objections about the first nominee.

“It just mushroomed into it,” said Rep. Charles “Don” Clemons Jr., D-Bridgeport, the caucus chairman and a member of the committee.

“We didn’t talk about a filibuster,” said Rep. Toni E. Walker, D-New Haven, a caucus member. “A lot of us had questions and comments, and a few of us are long-winded.”

The nine nominees – there were 10 in the group until one nominee withdrew a week ago for unrelated reasons – have been caught up in controversies over the budget and judicial disparity.

Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, D-East Haven, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he postponed a vote until Tuesday after it became clear that a debate on the nominees would stretch into the evening.

The House of Representatives was waiting to begin a session. Under legislative rules, no committee can meet while either chamber is in session. Ultimately, the session was canceled.

One reason: another minority, the House Republican caucus, was threatening to endlessly debate any issue that affected the budget, unless the Democratic leadership guaranteed a vote on Rell’s judicial appointments.

In effect, there was a filibuster threat on both sides of the issue.

“It’s pretty clear that nothing is happening,” Lawlor said.

Rell previously has appointed 38 judges: 31 were white, 6 were black and one was Latino. If her 10 recent nominees were included, 85 percent of her nominees were white, the same percentage as the judicial appointments of her predecessor, Gov. John G. Rowland.

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, said Rell told him and Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, that she is willing to promise naming one or more minority judges later this year. There are more than 20 judicial vacancies.

“They seemed heartened by that,” Cafero said of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus.

Rell’s press office was unaware of any such overture. Lisa Moody, the governor’s chief of staff, could not be reached for comment.

The Black and Puerto Rican Caucus is not the only legislative bloc empowered by the calendar. The Republican minority in both chambers also is at its maximum influence this week and next.

By postponing action on most bills until April — the House approved no legislation in March — the Democratic leadership has surrendered much of the power that comes with majorities of 114-37 in the House and 24-12 in the Senate.

“Time does go on the side of the minority, if you will,” Cafero said. “Meaning that if there are certain bills we don’t want to put forward, we’re going to let that be known by the things we say on the floor of the House.”

The issue of judicial diversity was the second to stall legislative confirmation of the nine nominees, who include Rell’s budget chief, Robert L. Genuario of Norwalk, and her public safety commissioner, John A. Danaher III of West Hartford.

House members threatened to indefinitely delay confirmation unless the Rell administration resolve a budget dispute with the judicial department. They struck a deal Thursday, but Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, objected Friday, saying he would hold up the judges until the entire budget for fiscal 2011 was resolved.

Cafero and McKinney countered William’s threat to hold the nominees hostage with their own threat to hold delay every bill with a budgetary impact, essentially tying up the General Assembly. To be fair, Cafero never used the words “hostage” or “filibuster.”

Instead, he said, “I found it imperative to scrutinize each and every bill.”

And that can take time.