The Connecticut Supreme Court heard arguments Thursday in a protracted and politically charged labor case that pits Gov. M. Jodi Rell against high-ranking state police officers.

At issue is whether the Rell administration must recognize a union formed by state police captains and lieutenants in 2006, as ordered by the State Board of Labor Relations in 2007 and a Superior Court judge in 2008.

Justices gently quizzed lawyers for both sides during sedate oral arguments, leaving the day’s sharpest exchanges outside the court, where a Democratic gubernatorial contender accused the Rell administration of bad faith.

Democrat Dannel P. Malloy injected the case into his exploratory campaign for governor, blaming the administration for wasting money appealing the decisions by the labor board and Judge Henry S. Cohn.

“Thanks to this obstruction, 22 critical command position remain unfilled coming out of retirements last July,” Malloy said. “This has left the state less prepared and less safe.”

Robert L. Genuario, the secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, said the case has not compromised public safety, though he conceded that all departments have been touched by a hiring freeze.

The state is facing a $500 million deficit in the current fiscal year.

“If the good mayor thinks there should be more public-safety staffing, he should suggest the General Assembly appropriate more dollars for public safety and say where those dollars are going to come from,” Genuario said.

The case has had political overtones from the start.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, now a candidate for U.S. Senate,  formally withdrew from the case in 2007, saying he believed “opposition to the unionization of police lieutenants and captains is wrong as a matter of policy.”

The Rell administration persisted, hiring private legal counsel from the Hartford firm of Kainen, Escalera & McHale.

About 40 captains and lieutenants unanimously voted to unionize in 2006 after two years of fruitless talks with administrations of Gov. John G. Rowland and Rell over pay and other issues.

The administration appealed, saying that the officers met the definition of a “state manager” under labor law and were prohibited from collective bargaining.

The labor board concluded that the captains and lieutenants have no authority to hire, fire or transfer personnel, nor do they formulate agency policy or play a role in collective bargaining.

“While the captains and lieutenants must act with dispatch on critical matters, make day-to-day decisions, and are highly trained, they have very little autonomy or authority over major decisions that effect their operations,” Cohn wrote in denying the state’s appeal.

During oral arguments, the state’s lawyer, Diana Garfield, told the court that allowing the captains and lieutenants to unionize would leave the state police with only a commissioner and deputy commissioner in the management ranks.

Justice Richard Palmer, a former chief state’s attorney, noted that supervisory prosecutors are unionized.

Garfield replied that still left the chief state’s attorney and more than a dozen state’s attorneys as management.

The Rell administration did not wage a similar fight when captains and lieutenants in the Department of Correction unionized.

Genuario said that the titles do not carry as much authority in corrections as they do in public safety.

Capt. Tom Garbedian of the state police said he and his fellow ranking officers unionized only after seeing their pay erode.  He said sergeants and master sergeants routinely make more money, because they are eligible for overtime.

In October 2007, only 38 sergeants and master sergeants eligible for promotion to lieutenant bothered to take the exam, the union said.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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