Judiciary Committee Co-Chair Gerald Fox III
Judiciary Committee Co-Chair Gerald Fox III ()

The Judiciary Committee is clearly the legislative panel that has the greatest impact on Connecticut lawyers, with its duties ranging from confirming judicial nominations to holding hearings on cutting-edge legal issues ranging from criminal sentencing issues to family law reform.

It now appears that there will be a major shake-up in the leadership of the committee, as the House co-chair, Rep. Gerald Fox III announced on Thursday, May 22 that he will not run for re-election to the legislature. Instead, the Stamford attorney will campaign for Stamford probate judge, a position currently held by his father.

Meanwhile, the Senate co-chair, Eric Coleman, lost the Democratic nomination for his seat earlier this week. In a hotly contested party convention for the 2nd District Senate seat, Coleman, of Bloomfield, was defeated by Hartford City Council President Shawn Wooden, a partner at Day Pitney. Coleman has indicated he plans to run a primary campaign against Wooten.

Fox and Coleman had big shoes to fill when they took over the Judiciary Committee posts four years ago. Their predecessors, then-Sen. Andrew McDonald and then-Rep. Michael Lawlor, were powerful, if sometimes controversial, leaders of the legislature. McDonald is now a state Supreme Court justice and Lawlor is an official in the state Office of Management and Policy, serving as Gov. Dannel Malloy’s leading advisor on criminal justice issues.

Under Fox and Coleman, the General Assembly passed legislation abolishing the death penalty and decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana. This past session, under pressure from angry pro se parties, they forged a compromise measure that will lead to reforms in the state’s guardian ad litem system.

Fox told the Law Tribune the decision to not run again was a difficult one. “I loved serving in the legislature,” Fox said. “It gave me a chance to learn a tremendous amount and a chance to be part of a number of important issues.”

He continued: “I think over my four years as chair, we did a lot of great work. There are a lot of important issues that came before us, the repeal of the death penalty stands out,” Fox said.

Fox, who practices at the small family firm of Fox & Fox, said probate court judgeships don’t open up all that often, and he wanted an “opportunity to be closer to home and to serve and practice law in a different way. I’m interested in the issues they deal with.”

He concluded: “So it’ll be different. There will be times I’ll be watching a [legislative] debate and wish I was part of it.”

A likely success to Fox on the Judiciary Committee is Rep. Matt Ritter, a Hartford Democrat who now serves as a vice-chair of the committee.

Lawlor, speaking to the CT News Junkie website, praised Fox’s stewardship of the Judiciary Committee, saying that he included ranking Republicans in the panel’s bill screening process. Lawlor said it is also important for Judiciary Committee chairs to patiently explain sometimes complicated legal proposals to colleagues who are not lawyers.

“Gerry certainly took that seriously and I think that it’s to his credit that he ends up leaving the committee pretty much liked by everybody, which I think is more than you can say for me,” Lawlor said.

Coleman 61, of Bloomfield, has represented the district since 1995. In addition to the Judiciary Committee post, he’s vice chairman of the Human Services Committee and a member of the General Law and Program Review and Investigations committees. He established his law practice in Hartford in 1986.

Wooden, 44, graduated from Trinity College in 1991 and New York University School of Law in 1997. At Day Pitney, he focuses on investment, corporate, and securities law.

“I’m honored to have received the Democratic Party endorsement for state Senate and grateful for the overwhelming support I received throughout the 2nd Senatorial District,” Wooden said in a statement. “I look forward to continuing to discuss how fresh ideas and new energy can strengthen every corner of our community.

“Even though we are competitors in this election, I would also like to thank Senator Coleman for his 32 years of service and wish him nothing but the best.”