It’s that time of year in Connecticut. Dozens of superior court vacancies have sat open for at least a year, and with Justice Maria Araujo Kahn’s confirmation to the federal bench, there is a vacancy on the Connecticut Supreme Court.
On top of its other duties in the middle of a relatively short legislative session, the Connecticut General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee now needs to consider Gov. Ned Lamont’s nominees for our state courts. To judge by the governor’s press release on his latest batch of judicial nominees, one might think that this job should be relatively straightforward for the committee.
According to the Governor’s office, all of the nominees are highly qualified, with significant experience in many areas of civil and criminal law.
However, what cannot be found in the governor’s press release is who his nominees have actually worked for. The descriptions of nominees’ work generally boil down to something like, “spent most of his legal career litigating civil matters” or “responsibilities include, but are not limited to, managing and resolving complex cumulative injury litigation related to asbestos, hazardous waste, and other toxic torts.” While these descriptions are accurate, they may obscure some information that would be important to Connecticut residents: whose side were they on?
As the People’s Parity Project (PPP) pointed out in its report on the professional diversity of the Connecticut judicial branch, former corporate lawyers and prosecutors are significantly overrepresented among the state’s judges, with public defenders, legal aid attorneys, and others working directly with affected communities being significantly underrepresented.
After pressure from the Connecticut Pro-People Judiciary Coalition, Governor Lamont’s latest batch of judicial nominations represents a slight improvement over the present bench. Lamont nominated proportionately more public defenders and plaintiffs’ litigators (who represent individuals harmed by corporations or the state) than are present on the current bench, but the overall numbers are not significantly different from where we started. Even more concerning are some of the cases that nominees worked on that are not necessarily captured in a broad characterization of their prior work.
For example, PPP characterized nominee Mark Altermatt’s prior experience as corporate law, having worked for David G. Hill and Associates and Halloran Sage, LLP. However, even this characterization may not capture the full picture of a lawyer’s work. A corporate lawyer may handle transactions, mergers and acquisitions, regulatory compliance, or any number of other functions relating to the daily business of a corporation. They may also handle corporate defense, ensuring that corporations keep from paying out for the negative consequences of their work on ordinary people.
If the public had access to Altermatt’s corporate defense casework, it may influence how legislators consider his candidacy. Altermatt seems to have almost specialized in corporate defense of harms against children, including sexual assault and massive physical injuries, with a significant number of his cases over the last few years having been focused on ensuring that corporate entities were not held liable for horrific abuses and injuries of Connecticut children. Nothing in Lamont’s press release or any of the media coverage afterward hinted at this dynamic.
These kinds of problematic backgrounds aren’t limited to corporate work. Some government legal jobs, like corporation counsel to our state’s cities, sound innocuous enough. Someone needs to represent the city, which at the end of the day benefits its residents, right? However, it turns out that a lot of what a city requires representation for is pretty problematic.
Press releases saying that nominees “directed all litigation brought against the city” does not tell us that handling litigation against the city means defending city police officers when they are accused of brutality and other civil rights violations and brought to civil court. It also means trying to make sure that the city doesn’t pay out when municipal employees are discriminated against, retaliated against, or otherwise unjustly fired. The same can go for the Attorney General’s office. Some attorneys in the office enforce employee and consumer protections, but others defend against civil rights violations. Without more information, it is difficult for the public to understand what a lawyer has done.
In every discussion of corporate defense, the idea that everyone is entitled to a defense is raised: “for an adversarial legal system to function justly, there have to be lawyers who are willing to serve clients they disapprove of.” While this is true in the abstract, in civil courts it is only really true for those who can afford it. Unlike in criminal court, there is generally no right to counsel in civil court, so corporate defendants are far more likely to be represented by an attorney than the plaintiffs bringing claims against them.
Unlike the work of public defenders, who fulfill our Constitutional protections by taking whichever clients come their way, corporate defense attorneys are closer to mercenaries, working for whoever is willing to pay.
Regardless of the morality of any form of legal representation, what matters most is how judges’ prior experiences may influence their rulings. Empirical studies have shown that judges’ backgrounds do have an impact on how they approach the law and—more importantly—the outcomes for the people that appear before them. One study showed that former corporate attorneys and prosecutors are more likely to side with corporations in employment disputes, such as discrimination, wage theft, and other matters. Former prosecutors have also been shown to impose harsher sentences on criminal defendants than other attorneys.
Given the types of cases that some judicial nominees have spent their careers working on and the potential biases imparted by that work, the governor’s office and Judiciary Committee do a great disservice to the people of Connecticut by not exploring how potential judges’ experiences may influence their decisions on the bench.
Corporate and other attorneys can’t have it both ways, bringing in massive paychecks to deny accountability for massive harms while also being able to stroll into a life of public service. All nominees’ records should be explored and scrutinized, but the government is unlikely to take that kind of action without hearing from the rest of us. This is not to say that a corporate attorney can’t join the bench, but that should be a deliberate decision with the consent of the people of the state.
The judiciary serves all of us, and we need more opportunities to be heard, which cannot happen unless we have the information needed to form an opinion. It is time for more transparency in judicial nominations in Connecticut.
Steve Kennedy is Organizing and Network Director for the People’s Parity Project.