Rell nominates four for judgeships

Five months after coming under fire for naming an all-white group of judges, Gov. M. Jodi Rell today submitted to the legislature a racially and ethnically diverse set of judicial nominations.

Rell four nominees include an African-American public defender and immigrants from Korea and Pakistan. They may be her last judicial picks before leaving office in January.

“These highly qualified nominees represent the finest traditions of Connecticut’s legal profession,” Rell said. “A diverse and highly educated group, they bring years of practical knowledge and personal experience to this challenge.”

Rell’s previous group of 10 nominees ignited a controversy over diversity and whether the court system needed or could afford to fill so many judicial vacancies at a time when court officials insisted their most pressing needs were for judicial marshals and other support staff.

Unless Rell calls a special legislative session to confirm her choices, the four nominees would go on the bench as interim judges to serve until next March, when the next governor would have to nominate them for full eight-year terms or allow their judicial careers to end.

Their nominations would be reviewed by the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which can block their interim appointments or approve the by a majority vote. If they committee fails to act in 60 days, the nominees are deemed approved for interim appointments.

The nominees are:

Hunchu Kwak, 48, of West Hartford, a native of Korea and a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the University of Connecticut School of Law. He is a Republican.

Lisa Kelly Morgan, 47, of Wethersfield. She is a graduate of Villanova University and the UConn School of Law. She is the president of her firm, Ruben, Morgan & Horan, where she has worked since 1994. She is a Republican.

John M. Newson, 41, of Brooklyn, a public defender. He is a graduate of the University of Rhode Island and Western New England College School of Law and a lifetime member of the NAACP. He is a Democrat.

Mohammad Nawaz Wahla, 59, of Glastonbury, who retired as a major after 20 years in the Pakistan Army. He has been president of his own firm, Wahla & Associates, since 1999. He received law degrees from the University of Punjab in 1974, the University of Texas at Austin in 1991 and the University of Houston in 1998. He is a Democrat.

Once the governor formally submits the names to the legislature, the Judiciary Committee has up to 60 days to hold hearings and vote on the nominations.

Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, and Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, D-East Haven, co-chairmen of the Judiciary Committee, said the panel will examine the nominees’ qualifications, but also consider whether the court system can afford them.

“It’s good that in the waning days of her tenure she’s becoming more sensisitve to the need for greater minority representation among judges to the bench, but the overarching concern still is whether or not filling these slots is a priority of the judicial branch,” McDonald said.

About 15 percent of Rell’s judicial nominees have been minorities, her administration says.

“I think it is a legitimate question whether the Judicial Branch needs four judges,” said Rep. Arthur O’Neill, R-Southbury, the ranking House Republican on the committee.

The court system has 14 judicial vacancies in the Superior Court, according to the Rell administration.