John Phelan

A seemingly innocuous pick for Chief Justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court has over the past few months morphed into a political bloodbath.

Justice Andrew McDonald, a left-leaning, gay judge who currently serves on the State Supreme Court, was nominated by Gov. Dannel Malloy to replace Chief Justice Chase Rogers, who retired from the court in February. A Republican-led effort defeated  the nomination, raising questions about what impact the rejection could have on the upcoming election.

After confirmation in the state House of Representatives by a 75–74 vote, the state Senate voted on McDonald’s nomination last Tuesday. The measure fell short by three votes, in a 16–19 split.

Malloy, a longtime political ally of McDonald’s, immediately condemned the decision in a statement, calling Republicans’ reasons for blocking the nomination “tortured explanations [that] do not stand up to basic standards of logic.”

State Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, the only openly gay senator in Connecticut, also condemned the decision. She said in a speech that bias against McDonald’s sexuality played a part in the unusual scrutiny surrounding the nomination, including a 13-hour confirmation hearing. Numerous other Democrats have made similar allegations, framing the vote as a referendum on McDonald’s sexuality and not his politics.

Republican columnist Chris Powell, however, does not buy that narrative. Like many other Republicans, Powell cited McDonald’s deciding vote on a 2015 ruling on the death penalty as a genuine concern Republicans have with his politics. Powell also pointed to McDonald’s comparatively easy 2013 confirmation for the Supreme Court as evidence that Republican opposition was about policy, not social beliefs.

“I would say the vast majority of Republicans who voted against him are probably OK with gay rights,” said Gary Rose, a professor of government and politics at Sacred Heart University. “[The backlash] seems like an attempt by the governor to spear the Republicans to make them look like Neanderthals.”

It remains unclear what impact the controversial rejection will have on electoral races this fall. A number of Democratic candidates for governor tweeted about their support for McDonald, including front-runners Ned Lamont SOM ’80 and former West Hartford Mayor Jonathan Harris. Gubernatorial hopeful and Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin ’01 LAW ’06 suggested on Twitter that he would renominate McDonald if elected governor.

Rose said this posturing by candidates is an effort to align themselves with their party — to show voters and party officials they are on board with the current Democratic social platform.

Still, Powell sees no issue with the renomination.

“If the November election is the referendum on the McDonald case and the Democrats prevail, they will have every right to vindicate him by renominating him,” he said. “This is democracy.”

Both Powell and Rose, however, doubt McDonald will still be fresh in voters’ minds when it comes time to elect a governor this fall. Because of the pace of the news cycle, they said, other issues, like the state’s economy and budget will likely seem more significant come election season.

Although the impact on the gubernatorial race may be minimal, the McDonald’s rejection will certainly affect the judicial nominations of whoever ends up occupying the governor’s mansion in 2019. Bye suggested in a Hartford Courant op-ed that the state Senate is starting to reflect the partisan nature of its national counterpart, and Rose agrees.

“There’s no question in my mind that what we have been witnessing in Washington politics is working its way into state politics,” said Rose. “It’s not a mirror image, but we are moving in that direction.”

Rose also said a smaller, more ideologically homogeneous Republican Party and the movement of the Democratic Party towards its progressive wing has widened the partisan gap.

This partisan gap could complicate the new governor’s judicial nominations. The so-called “honeymoon period” after an election, where a governor or similarly powered elected official is able to make nominations with comparatively little scrutiny, may be shortened or eliminated entirely.

Powell said this recent trend of partisan scrutiny is also a product of so-called “superlegislators” on the judicial bench — judges who tend to act more as lawmakers than impartial arbiters. Because of this power, Powell said, legislators are more adamant about confirming judges that reflect their own beliefs.

“Liberals and conservatives alike are trying to constitutionalize their ideologies,” he said.

Rose also suggested that Democrats may seek revenge for McDonald’s rejection if a Republican governor is elected, likely heavily scrutinizing or potentially even blocking nominations.

McDonald will continue to serve as an associate justice on the State Supreme Court.

Conor Johnson | conor.johnson@yale.edu