Superior Court Judge Dawne G. Westbrook cruised through her confirmation to a seat on the Connecticut Appellate Court on Friday, winning bipartisan praise for direct answers on judicial philosophy and her broad experience as a lawyer, jurist and woman of color.
Westbrook was unanimously confirmed by the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, checking boxes that advocates and lawmakers deemed important, including a background in public interest or criminal defense law, significant workaday experience in Connecticut’s courts, and racial diversity.
A judge for 14 years, Westbrook previously worked in a domestic violence shelter, served as a special public defender, worked for the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities and NAACP, and sat on the board of the Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund.
“It’s so refreshing to see somebody who’s actually had to hold a mom’s hand, a domestic violence victim, all of that stuff, being elevated to the Appellate Court,” said Rep. Craig Fishbein of Wallingford, the ranking House Republican on the committee.
Westbrook, 53, of Glastonbury, has served as a judge in criminal and family courts and currently is chief administrative judge for juvenile matters. She has twice been confirmed by the General Assembly to eight-year terms on the Superior Court.
With the legislature not in session, only the Judiciary Committee vote is necessary for her to join Connecticut’s second-highest court. She will face confirmation by the General Assembly for a full eight-year term on the Appellate Court after the legislature returns in February for its 2024 session.
Gov. Ned Lamont had been urged to consider Westbrook after he twice went outside the court system for nominees to the Supreme Court, both times picking women with a background as federal prosecutors. Advocates complained that too many judges came from the ranks of prosecutors and corporate law.
Sen. Patricia Billie Miller, D-Stamford, the leader of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, said she was grateful to the governor for listening and nominating a woman with Westbrook’s life experiences.
“When you’re a Black child and you don’t have positive role models in your life, life seems kind of dim,” Miller said. “And you have been a role model for our young people when they come into your court. And they see you, they know that their life doesn’t have to necessarily go down the path that they’re going down.”
Fishbein, one of the legislators who had complained that Lamont seemed to place too little value on practical experience in the state courts, called Westbrook a near-perfect nominee. He tweaked her for a misspelling on a committee questionnaire filled out on a template unprotected by spell check.
He laughed when Westbrook admitted to a Generation Xer’s reliance on spell check, then quizzed her on some of her child-protection and family law cases, including one where a husband was exposed as hiding a winning lottery ticket from his wife. The interactions were conversational.
“It’s clear you’re the type of person that should be appointed to a higher court like the Appellate or Supreme Court,” said Rep. Patrick Callahan, R-New Fairfield. “Your life experiences and your education shaped you into a great judge. And those are the type of judges that need to be sitting in judgment of others.”
In Westbrook, the Appellate Court is getting a jurist who grew up in a community skeptical of the law, went to college planning on a career in broadcast journalism, then became a lawyer and judge working with some of the more difficult areas of the law, including family courts and juvenile justice.
“Like many Americans, I grew up in a community of poverty, a community of color, where people often didn’t trust the law,” Westbrook said. “And often their only experience with the law was related to something happening to them — an eviction, a child protection action, criminal investigation, a loss of a job, issues with the education system. So I grew up in an environment where there was skepticism, mystery and a general distrust of the law.”
She grew up on the west side of Dayton, Ohio, raised by a mother who became a public school teacher and, eventually, a leader in the Ohio Education Association. Her mother, Joanne Gay, and Westbrook’s four children watched from the front row of a small hearing room crowded with well-wishers.
Westbrook attended Fisk University, a historically Black college in Nashville on a full scholarship. After graduating from Fisk, she got a law degree from Vanderbilt University School of Law.
“While at Fisk, I learned a great deal about civil rights, feminism and LGBTQ rights. And as I began my studies, I was particularly drawn to philosophy, the study of logic and reasoning,” Westbrook said.
As was the case with previous nominees, Westbrook was asked in a questionnaire to identify cases the Supreme Court got wrong, a query that provoked criticism by others of the court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. Westbrook answered more carefully.
“As a lower court judge, I am hesitant to state that the Supreme Court got it ‘wrong.’ Unless the Supreme has overturned a previous decision, I am bound to uphold and follow the decisions of the Supreme Court,” Westbrook wrote.
She offered two cases the nation’s highest court got wrong, based on its own reversals: Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 opinion ruling that racial segregation laws were constitutional; and Bowers v. Hardwick, a 1986 case in which the court held that states could bar homosexual sex among consenting adults.
Plessy was unanimously reversed by the court in 1954 in Brown v. Board, striking down the previously permitted standard of “separate but equal.” In 2003, the court reversed Bowers with Lawrence v. Texas in a 6-3 decision, with William Rehnquist, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissenting.
Westbrook succeeds Eliot D. Prescott on the nine-member court. He took senior status this month.
Correction: This story was updated to correct the year in which Lawrence was decided.