Committee approves Justice McDonald for new term on state's highest court

Photo of Ken Dixon

The legislative Judiciary Committee on Monday confirmed Supreme Court Justice Andrew J. McDonald for a second eight-year term on the state’s highest court, despite a handful of negative Republican votes revealing lingering animosity from his failed nomination to become chief justice in 2018.

There was no debate over the 54-year-old McDonald during the committee’s virtual hearing. But several GOP lawmakers, including two new members of the state House of Representatives, voted against him. Two others, Rep. Doug Dubitsky of Chaplin and Sen. Rob Sampson, who recently challenged Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive orders in the high court, disqualified themselves.

McDonald was confirmed 32-5. The nomination now heads to the House and Senate.

Opposition in the voting was led by Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, a conservative recently named ranking member of the Judiciary Committee. Fishbein, in a query indicating opposition to the proposed legalization of marijuana for adult use, asked McDonald whether Connecticut law could trump federal laws against the drug.

“So if marijuana is illegal for recreational use federally, how can a state such as Connecticut even contemplate recreational marijuana legalization?” Fishbein asked.

“That a subject that obviously is going to be debated in the legislature this year,” replied McDonald, a Stamford native who now resides in Hartford. “That’s a policy decision for the legislature, whether they want to entertain that question, and if so, whether to pass legislation related to that. It would be something that would be litigated and if it got to our court, then I would focus on the merits of the arguments. I am not suggesting that I have studied this in any detail or formed any opinion about whether such legislature would pass statutory or Constitution muster.”

Eleven states have full legalization of cannabis, most as a result of statewide referendums, while 34 have medical-marijuana programs, including Connecticut.

In 2018, the state Senate turned down former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s nomination of McDonald to become the nation’s first openly gay chief justice. Republicans criticized the high court’s 2015 ruling that the repeal of the death penalty had to include the inmates on death row. Republicans charged that McDonald was an “activist” judge.

McDonald, a former Democratic state senator from Stamford who was co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee while he held the Senate seat, was first appointed to the high court by Malloy in 2013. McDonald had been Malloy’s top lawyer when Malloy was mayor of Stamford and again in Malloy’s first two years as governor.

A longtime trial lawyer, McDonald, who attended Stamford public schools, Cornell University and the University of Connecticut Law School, did not serve as a jurist in the lower courts before Malloy’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

Opponents also included first-term Reps. Kimberly Fiorello, R-Greenwich and Donna Veach,R-Berlin; Rep. David Labriola, R-Oxford; and Rep. Cara Pavlock-D’Amato, R-Bristol.

State Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, who voted against McDonald in 2018, called the period two years ago “a tumultuous” time. “I know it must have been hard not to be appointed chief justice,” Kissel said, asking whether it was difficult for McDonald, who has authored 140 court opinion, to go right to the Supreme Court in his first judicial job.

“Not a problem whatsoever,” McDonald replied. “Obviously I was a trial attorney for 20 years. I was pretty versed from at least one side of the bench, on how court operations work. The process of judging is very different at the Superior Court level as opposed to an appellate court level. We have the time to research and look into things in much more detail than the trial courts have to. They have to call balls and strikes dozens of times a day. We have the ability to review the law in much greater detail than they do, as we do our job.”

Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, co-chairman of the committee said in an interview that McDonald has proven himself to be a key member of the court.

“Justice McDonald brings a unique perspective to the Supreme Court bench as one of the few people who have served in all three branches of state government,” Stafstrom said. “He has proven himself a reasoned jurist and someone the state relies to serve on a variety of judicial committees to bring about reform and progress in providing access to justice for the citizens of Connecticut.”

kdixon@ctpost.com Twitter: @KenDixonCT