Droney gets a brief and cordial hearing on appeals court nomination

WASHINGTON–The Senate Judiciary Committee gave Connecticut’s Christopher Droney a light and breezy 15-minute quizzing at his confirmation hearing Wednesday, with no hard-ball or hostile questions for the appeals court nominee.

The top Republican on the panel, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, asked Droney a half-dozen questions, querying him about a colorful quote he gave to the New York Times 14 years ago and the proper venue for conducting terrorism trials, among other things. But Grassley finished his grilling–if it could even be called that–in speedy fashion, giving no hint that Droney’s confirmation could be snarled in controversy.

Currently a U.S. District judge in Hartford, Droney was nominated last month for a seat on the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. Droney had two strong political and personal allies going to bat for him at Wednesday’s hearing–Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., presided over the session, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a  Connecticut independent, introduced him.

“It’s a personal thrill for me to be able to introduce Judge Droney,” Lieberman began, giving a glowing account of Droney’s qualifications and legal bona fides. “He has a proud commitment to the rule of law… To my way of thinking, he’s just a mainstream, bright, sensible jurist.”

Blumenthal also heaped plaudits on the nominee. “Judge Droney brings to this nomination a really rare, if not unique, set of qualifications and experience, having been a prosecutor and private attorney and citizen involved in his community,” Blumenthal said.

Droney served as U.S. attorney from 1993 to 1997, winning praise for his crackdown on gang violence, among other initiatives in that job. He was nominated to the U.S. District Court in 1997 by then-President Bill Clinton and won unanimous confirmation by the Senate at the time. Lieberman said he hoped the Senate tally would be the same this time around–an unlikely prospect given the partisan nature of judicial confirmation votes now.

In addition to his legal career, Droney has also dabbled in politics: He served as mayor, deputy mayor, and town council member in West Hartford in the mid- to late 1980s. And he’s politically wired: His brother is John F. Droney, a former Democratic State Chairman who is close to Lieberman. The senator recommended Droney for his previous appointments as U.S. attorney and district court judge, as well as his current nomination to the appeals court.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Droney appeared at ease and gave careful, adroit answers to questions about his judicial style, his views on legal precedent, and whether his personal experience would color his judicial rulings. He articulated a commitment to legal precedent and said that in 14 years on the bench, he has strived to keep his personal views out of the courtroom. He said he would continue that approach if confirmed to the appeals court.

“I certainly don’t think my personal views should be involved in deciding cases,” he said. “I do strongly believe the decisions of higher courts should bind lower courts.”

Grassley asked him about the Obama Administration’s efforts to try some terrorism cases in federal courts, as opposed to military tribunals, and Droney avoided offering an opinion on that controversial subject.

“If I have one of those cases, I’d certainly adjudicate and follow the law,” he said. But the proper forum, he said, is for others to determine. “It’s a prosecutorial decision, rather than a judicial decision,” he said.

In response to a question about whether he would consider legislative intent in interpreting laws, Droney said, “Of course the first thing we should look to is the language of the statute or the Constitution.” But, he added, it’s also “appropriate to look at legislative history. It’s our obligation to see what the legislature intended.”

Grassley also asked him about a 1997 article in the New York Times, in which Droney was quoted as saying, “I believe in redemption, but I also believe in paying for your sins.” The story featured a case Droney handled against Iran Nazario, a leader of the Los Solidos gang in the early 1990s.

Droney stuck by his quote, saying “I still believe generally in those principals.” He said he hoped Nazario had turned his life around, but “he also had to pay for some of the misdeeds” he’d committed.

After the hearing, both Blumenthal and Grassley said they saw no roadblocks to Droney’s confirmation by the Judiciary Committee and the full Senate.

“I am certainly hoping for a very prompt vote,” Blumenthal said. “There seems to be no absolutely controversy whatsoever surrounding his nomination.”

Grassley said he “didn’t hear anything today that would cause me to vote against him.” But, he added, “there will be some follow-up questions,” and he and other committee members will need time to more fully review Droney’s record.

The biggest obstacle could be the congressional calendar, since lawmakers are scheduled to take a long break in August. When they return, action on judicial nomination could slow as the 2012 election moves into higher gear.

Droney’s nomination is Obama’s second attempt at filling the 2nd Circuit vacancy. His first pick, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Chatigny, stalled amid GOP opposition last year, and the president did not re-submit his name to the Senate this year. Instead he nominated Droney in May.