Connecticut senators voted on Wednesday to advance the judicial nominations of two former legislators who opposed the passage of a landmark 2011 law prohibiting discrimination based on one’s gender identity.
Although a few senators expressed concern about the nominees’ voting history, the Senate overwhelmingly approved former Sens. Paul Doyle, a Democrat, and Jason Welch, a Republican, to serve as Superior Court judges, moving their nominations to the House for another vote.
A small contingent in the House, meanwhile, opposed the appointment of another judge nominee, Karen L. DeMeola, over what they considered a lack of sufficient experience. The half-dozen Hispanic legislators also cast no votes in protest over the small number of Latino or Hispanic nominees in the overall group presented by Gov. Ned Lamont.
Voting against Doyle and Welch’s appointments were Democratic Sens. Herron Gaston, D-Bridgeport, Ceci Maher, D-Stamford, Martha Marx, D-New London, and Patricia Miller, D-Stamford.
In 2011, Doyle, a former co-chair of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, broke away from his Democratic colleagues to join Republicans, including Welch, in opposition to that year’s House Bill 6599.
The legislation, signed by then-Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, outlawed discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression in employment, public accommodations and housing. Transgender residents and LGBTQ+ advocates had previously urged lawmakers to support the bill, regarding it as a necessary step forward in protecting some of the state’s most vulnerable people.
With their nominations approved by state senators from both political parties, who depicted them as fair minded, Doyle, an attorney whose father served as a judge, and Welch, legal counsel for the Connecticut Senate Republican Caucus, are all but guaranteed to be confirmed as Superior Court judges — who oversee civil, criminal, family and housing cases.
On Wednesday, Lynn Discenza, president of Stonewall Speakers and Waterbury’s PFLAG chapter, two LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations, told the CT Mirror that it would be “very disappointing” for both candidates to pass through the legislature without going on record to communicate their solidarity with LGBTQ+ communities.
“We need to have allies representing us, people who will stand up for us,” Discenza said. “We have so many issues … in divorce cases, in child custody cases, in criminal cases, and how they’re treated by the criminal system. There’s just so many things that we need to protect our rights here in Connecticut.”
Doyle declined to comment, and the CT Mirror wasn’t immediately able to reach Welch. But in their testimony before the Judiciary Committee last month, both attempted to distance themselves from their votes, while pledging to treat state residents before them equally under the law.
Doyle said he voted against the anti-discrimination legislation because he felt the language was too broad and not specific enough, though he didn’t specify which parts of the law he opposed.
“I am 100% confident that I abhor all discrimination,” he said. “Every person in my courtroom will be treated equally with respect, compassion and dignity. That’s a core belief of mine.”
In his own testimony, Welch dodged a direct question from Rep. Bob Godfrey, D-Danbury, about whether his views on civil rights have changed, claiming that he didn’t want to give the impression that, if appointed, the judiciary isn’t impartial. He instead told lawmakers that his views are “always maturing.”
“I am fully committed to being faithful to the laws that the General Assembly propagates and applying those fairly and equitably in whatever case and controversy comes before me,” Welch said. “Whether or not I voted for it, or against it, I fully appreciate that the imposition of a legislator is very different from the position of a jurist.”
Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, who serves as co-chair of the Judiciary Committee and was a co-sponsor of the anti-discrimination bill, recognized other legislators’ concerns and said he may have voted differently had they been nominated to a different court.
But the nominees’ answers didn’t satisfy Miller, chair of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, who voted against both appointments.
Prior to Wednesday’s vote, the Stamford senator, who also voted against the 2011 anti-discrimination legislation when she was a state representative, told her colleagues that she was concerned about Doyle’s voting record as it pertains to immigration. Doyle and Welch voted against 2013 legislation that, among other things, sought to help undocumented immigrants obtain driver’s licenses.
“In those cases where you have undocumented immigrants, and you have the marginalized, and you have the disenfranchised, what kind of discretion will he use?” asked Miller, who is Black. “There’s a quote that says, ‘If people show you who they are, believe them.’ And I hope that should attorney Doyle become judge, he will not be the person that I think he would be, that he will execute some type of grace.”
If confirmed, both nominees would assume the bench at a time when LGBTQ+ communities across the country are under assault, with Republican legislators causing an uproar around health care for transgender youth, classroom instruction about gender identity, and drag shows. So far this year, over 540 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced in U.S. state legislatures, according to the Human Rights Campaign. More than 220 bills specifically target transgender and non-binary people.
Connecticut Republicans have introduced at least five anti-trans bills, according to the Trans Legislation Tracker, one of which seeks to prohibit transgender women from competing in women’s interscholastic athletic events. Recently, a New York appeals court upheld a student athletic policy in Connecticut allowing transgender students to play on sports teams most consistent with their gender identity.
Physical violence has also manifested. Last year, a gunman killed five people and wounded 17 others at an LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado. In Connecticut, the owners of a gay bar in Norwalk were physically assaulted by a man who they said disparaged them with anti-LGBTQ+ slurs.
The 2011 anti-discrimination legislation at the heart of Wednesday’s confirmation was viewed as a major success at the time of its passage, Discenza said. Notably, it authorized people discriminated against on the basis of gender identity to file discrimination complaints with the state’s Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. It also established criminal penalties to protect people deprived of their rights.
Discenza said it’s important to have strong equality laws on the books — and that there’s a need for good judges to enforce them.
However, Doyle and Welch weren’t the only judicial nominees subject to scrutiny.
A half-dozen Latino members of the House cast protest votes against the confirmation of DeMeola, joining Republicans who complained she had insufficient experience.
DeMeola, 53, of Tolland is the assistant dean for diversity, belonging and community engagement at UConn Law and is a former president of the Connecticut Bar Association.
The House voted 87 to 49 to confirm her with all but two Republicans opposed. Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, the ranking House Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said she had too little experience in court.
Rep. Chris Rosario, D-Bridgeport, a member of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, said the votes cast against her by members of his caucus were an expression of dissatisfaction with Latino representation on the bench.
None of the six caucus members casting no votes spoke during debate, with Rosario saying in an interview that the votes made their statement.
“It was a pretty loud statement,” Rosario said.
As of last year, only a dozen of the state’s 171 judges identified as Latino or Hispanic. Two of the 20 nominees in the latest class of judicial nominees are Hispanic.
“Governor Lamont has focused on bringing more racial, gender and professional diversity to the Connecticut’s judiciary,” said Adam Joseph, the governor’s communications director. “The administration will continue its work with the Connecticut Hispanic Bar Association and other affinity bar associations and members of the General Assembly to not only identify candidates for nomination to the bench but to recruit attorneys to apply for judicial selection.”
Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, D-Hartford, said she would cast protest votes against judicial nominees until more Hispanic lawyers are nominated.
DeMeola was one of 11 men and nine women Lamont nominated to the Superior Court on March 29. The class is Lamont’s third major group of judicial nominees since taking office in 2019.
The governor can only make nominations from a pool of candidates who have cleared the Judicial Selection Commission.
Republicans also opposed the confirmation of Lynn Alvey Dawson, 64, of Cheshire, a solo practitioner. She was confirmed on a vote of 93-48. Gonzalez joined in the opposition.
Nine others were confirmed in the House without comment by unanimous votes.