Coleman to be Senate judiciary chair

Majority Democrats in the state Senate appointed new leaders Tuesday in 10 of 27 legislative committees, including Eric Coleman of Bloomfield as co-chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee in the 2011 General Assembly session.

And with two more chairmanships–those of the committees on children and veterans affairs–still to be named, Senate Democrats could be looking at new leaders on nearly half of their committees as the legislature begins to feel the effects of key lawmakers resigning to join Gov.-elect Dan Malloy’s administration.

All legislative committees are joint panels, meaning they have both senators and representatives on their membership rolls, as well as one co-chair from each chamber. The House chairs have not been named yet.

Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, who announced the assignments, did not change leadership of the two key budget-writing panels–finance and appropriations–as the legislature prepares to tackle a $3.67 billion budget deficit.

“In a time of change we are fortunate that our caucus remains experienced with extremely qualified and dedicated people,” Williams said. “Those skills and that knowledge will make a tremendous difference as we face significant challenges over the next several months.”

An attorney, Coleman has served on the Judiciary Committee since he entered the House in 1983 and remained on the committee when elected to the Senate in 1995. He co-chaired the panel from 2001-2002.

“Eric’s a terrific senator, a longtime member of the Judiciary Committee and I thought he did a great job as chairman the last time, Williams said Tuesday. “I think he’ll be an excellent and fair-minded chairman.”

Besides his experience, the Bloomfield lawmaker’s position on capital punishment also may have helped in his selection.

Coleman favors repeal of the death penalty, as do Malloy, Williams and House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden.

Coleman said Tuesday that a bill repealing the death penalty will likely be passed out of his committee.

“I look forward to advancing that debate,” he said. “Major mistakes have been made with putting the wrong people in jail. So for me, it just highlights the criminal justice system is imperfect and the need to choose life imprisonment versus putting someone to death.”

Coleman said it is still too early for him to announce what other issues his committee will tackle.

“There’s a never-ending flow of issues facing that committee… I know it won’t be dull,” he said. “The Judiciary Committee has tackled some major issues in recent years.”

Coleman will replace Sen. Andrew J. McDonald, D-Stamford, as Senate chairman of the panel. McDonald was re-elected but will not be sworn in to another term on Jan. 5, resigning to instead become the new governor’s general counsel.

The committee will have a new House chairman as well, a Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, also is joining the Malloy administration.

Malloy also dipped into the Senate majority’s ranks last week when he named New Britain Democrat Donald DeFronzo as his new commissioner of the Department of Administrative Services.

DeFronzo’s post as Senate chairman of the Transportation Committee falls to Waterford Democrat Andrea L. Stillman as just one example of a domino-like series of committee leadership changes.

Coleman’s post as Senate chair of the Planning and Development Committee goes to former Manchester Mayor Stephen Cassano, who was elected in place of the retiring 4th District Sen. Mary Ann Handley.

Program Review & Investigations is the only legislative panel with rotating bipartisan leadership assignments. John Fonfara, a Hartford Democrat, will take over the Senate chairman’s post from Enfield Republican John Kissel.

Other new leadership assignments for Senate Democrats include:

  • General Law Committee, with Paul Doyle of Wethersfield taking the post held by Thomas A. Colapietro of Bristol, who was defeated in his bid for re-election.
  • Higher Education and Employment Advancement, with Sen.-elect Beth Bye of West Hartford replacing Handley.
  • Human Services, with Anthony Musto of Trumbull replacing Doyle.
  • Public Health, with Andrew Maynard of Stonington replacing retiring Sen. Jonathan Harris of West Hartford.
  • Public Safety, with Joan V. Hartley replacing Stillman.
  • Regulations Review, with Musto replacing Hartley.

Williams reappointed two veteran senators, Toni Harp of New Haven and Eileen Daily of Westbrook, to lead the Appropriations and Finance, Revenue and Bonding panels, respectively. Both committees will have new co-chairs from the House, however.

Other panels with returning Senate Democratic chairmen include: