Months removed from a legislative session in which a state Supreme Court nominee was bypassed by officials concerned about her stance on reproductive rights and her inexperience in state court, advocates are urging Gov. Ned Lamont to recommend judicial candidates with more professional diversity.
The Connecticut Pro-People Judiciary Coalition, the group that, more specifically, is pushing for additional experience in public defense and civil rights law, made the plea in a press conference Wednesday. The coalition has also released a list of candidates they hope Lamont will consider for future selections.
“Especially with the extreme rightward turn that the U.S. Supreme Court has taken over the last several years, it’s more important than ever that we have champions of the people on our state courts who are willing to step in and ensure fundamental rights,” said Steve Kennedy, the organizing and network director of the People’s Parity Project at UConn Law, which advocates for workers’ rights and court reform.
During this year’s legislative session, Lamont’s recommendation for a vacancy on the Connecticut State Supreme Court bench, Sandra Slack Glover, withdrew her nomination after she was unable to overcome legislative questions about her 2017 endorsement of Amy Coney Barrett, one of the six U.S. Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion.
Prior to Glover’s withdrawal, some lawmakers also expressed concerns about the career federal prosecutor’s inexperience in state court. Further, Lamont nominated her during a time when the CT Pro-People Judiciary Coalition was calling for officials to look beyond prosecutors and corporate lawyers for nominees to the bench. The organizers cited a 2022 report that revealed a lack of public defense and civil rights experience among state judges.
The list of candidates at the hub of Wednesday’s meeting included seven “pro-people” lawyers, as they were described, with backgrounds in public defense and civil rights work.
That includes James Bhandary-Alexander, legal director of the Medical-Legal Partnership at the Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy at Yale Law School; Tamar Birckhead, a managing partner at Birckhead Law LLC; and Cynthia Jennings, a private civil rights and environmental attorney.
The list also includes Joshua Perry, the solicitor general in the Office of the Attorney General; Michael Roberts, an attorney with the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities; Jessica Walker, a partner at Koch, Garg & Brown; and Christina Colón Williams, a partner at the Esperanza Center for Law and Advocacy.
Court reform advocates say they hope Lamont, who’s expected to make nominations during the 2024 legislative session, considers the attorneys for vacancies in both the Supreme Court and the Superior Court, which oversees civil, criminal, family and housing cases.
“This is certainly not exhaustive,” Kennedy said. “There are a lot of really incredible lawyers in this state that are well qualified for our state courts and whose perspectives are sorely needed on the bench. So take this as just a flavor of the kinds of people that we would like to see nominated.”
In a statement to The Connecticut Mirror, David Bednarz, the senior press secretary in the governor’s office, said he believes Lamont has shown through his previous classes of judicial nominations a commitment to diversifying the bench, including through professional experience.
“Our office has had discussions with representatives from the People’s Parity Project to listen to their suggestions for future nominations because this administration values their input,” Bednarz said. “We welcome their continued thoughts on how we can further diversify the bench.”
In Lamont’s last major class of judicial nominations, he selected nearly an equal number of women and men.
As of June 2022, men held 54% of the 155 filled positions on the trial bench; 68% of the trial judges were white, while 32% were people of color.
The 2022 report on professional diversity in the Judicial Branch, authored by the People’s Parity Project, revealed that over half of Connecticut’s judges had experience either as corporate attorneys or criminal prosecutors. For comparison, only 6.3% had public defense experience, while only 4.9% had legal aid experience.
Only one justice of the state Supreme Court had legal aid experience, according to the report, while none of the justices were previously public defenders.
“Just like a jury needs to contain a cross section of the community with different points of view, different backgrounds and different heritage, the judiciary should contain a cross section of views across the legal system,” said Alex Taubes, a New Haven-based civil rights attorney who attended Wednesday’s meeting. “It should not only be a place for former prosecutors to get a promotion to become judges, but all too often the people who we see on the bench are coming from the same offices.”
Taubes mentioned how Connecticut District Judge Janet C. Hall, who previously practiced civil litigation, overturned the conviction of Maleek Jones, a Black man imprisoned for nearly 30 years for a murder he and others have long said he didn’t commit.
“Judge Hall found that the prosecutor’s decision was not only wrong but objectively unreasonable,” said Taubes, citing Hall’s ruling. “If maybe … there had been a public defender, or a civil rights attorney or someone else who could see the other point of view, perhaps this egregious error of law more than about 30 years ago wouldn’t have occurred.”
Kathy Flaherty, executive director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, said people often forget that judges bring all of themselves to the bench, “which means they bring all of their personal backgrounds.” The latter has likely created a situation, she said, where people may not imagine themselves working in a place because they’re not represented.
“You just keep repeating the same patterns over and over,” Flaherty said. “Jokingly, we refer to ourselves as the Land of Steady Habits, but we have boxed ourselves into a situation where we have such a small number of people with professional diversity in their background in terms of being legal aid lawyers, civil rights lawyers, pro-people lawyers. And the bench will be better if more of us are there.”
Grace Brunner, president of the UConn’s People’s Parity Project chapter who was also present Wednesday, said that as a student, she finds it “incredibly disheartening” to see bias in favor of people who already have powerful legal careers.
“I came to law school to serve the people and not corporate interests,” Brunner said. “That is more important to me than a potential future in the judiciary. But students shouldn’t have to choose. They shouldn’t have to decide between serving marginalized communities and pursuing public service as a judge.”
Typically, when judges are brought before the legislature’s Judiciary Committee for confirmation, legislators “rubber stamp” a nominee, Kennedy said, alluding to how candidates don’t always face scrutiny about their experience and how many nominees are approved regardless of decisions they’ve previously made.
With Glover’s nomination, however, Kennedy sensed that while many raised concerns about her endorsement of Barrett — which came through a letter of support Glover and others signed as the now-Supreme Court justice awaited confirmation as a federal appeals court judge — some lawmakers also made mention of the state’s lack of professional diversity on the bench.
“We hope the governor kind of takes that lesson moving forward. And it’s not just like, ‘OK, find another prosecutor who hasn’t signed on to a letter like this, but to look at the commentary kind of as a whole and really go in a different direction here,” Kennedy said, “to bring someone forward from a pro-people background to bring this really needed perspective to the bench.”