The state legislature’s Judiciary Committee overwhelmingly approved Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s last set of judicial nominations Friday, backing an ethnically diverse panel of four who could end up serving only a few months.

Because of the timing of their nominations, the four new judges’ initial appointments only extend through Feb. 9. Whether they serve beyond that depends on whether they are re-nominated by Rell’s successor and ratified by the next General Assembly.

The group of new judges includes:

  • 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.

Because Rell nominated the judges after the regular 2010 legislation session ended and because she isn’t seeking re-election, these interim appointees require more than just the ratification of the full legislature next year to receive full, eight-year terms. They also must be renominated by the next governor — or face an abbreviated term that ends after three months.

There’s more at stake than just a job change: New judges must sever professional ties with their old practices, which can be a complex financial transaction.

“It’s a leap of faith,” Newson said, adding he accepted some time ago that “there’s only a small part of this process that we can control. The hope would be that we get there and do enough that the governor-to-be and the next General Assembly find us to be of such quality that they want to reappoint us.”

“We were made aware of this from the beginning,” Wahla said afterward, adding the risk didn’t dissuade him from pursuing his goal. “I have no doubt that this will become permanent.”

Kwak told the committee has was enthusiastic nonetheless to begin immediately, and when asked whether he was prepared to forfeit a day’s pay to help balance the state budget, he quickly replied: “I’ll take a furlough day next week. … You have to lead by example.”

Rell nominated that group in late September, about five months after she was criticized by lawmakers for naming an all-white group of 10 judicial nominees.

The governor also has been criticized for issuing judicial nominations this year while the Judicial Branch, along with most agencies and departments, have been pressed to cut spending to help keep the overall state budget in balance.

An early $45.3 million deficit projection for this year’s $19.01 billion budget recently was upgraded to a $300,000 surplus, but the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis is forecasting a mammoth-sized, $3.26 billion deficit for 2011-12.

The Judicial Branch has not asked for additional judges, but does have 14 judicial posts at the Superior Court level that are vacant. Still, court officials have said more funding for judicial marshals and other support staff are their most pressing needs.

Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, veteran co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, supported all four nominees, but said that he understood why others might have concerns about the timing of the appointments.

“You could argue: Why shouldn’t the next governor be able to nominate whomever he wants?” he said.

But Lawlor also said all four nominees appeared to be qualified and “they represent something many people want: diversity. They are probably the most diverse group ever.”

Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, a former chairman of the legislature’s Black and Latino Caucus, supported the nominees. “Too often, diversity of appointments has been an afterthought,” he said.

But Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, D-Hartford, who also serves on the committee, cast the only opposition vote, citing fiscal concerns.

“I have nothing against these nominees,” Gonzalez said. But “the very laudable goal of diversity must not be cited to provide cover for fiscal irresponsibility.”

Rep. Arthur O’Neill of Southbury, ranking House Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Friday that he believes most committee members were concerned, as they should have been, solely with the candidates’ merits.

“Of course we don’t know what the future holds, but the money is in the current budget for these positions,” he said.

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Keith M. PhaneufState Budget Reporter

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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