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Somewhere in America, in some other state, there may be a lawyer whose lifelong efforts measure up to Wesley W. Horton’s impact on Connecticut. It’s possible, but unlikely. The hypothetical Horton-equivalent would have to simultaneously be the state’s leading appellate practitioner, the top state legal historian and author of the definitive guide to practice in the appellate courts. In addition, she or he would have shaped the state’s constitutional law with milestone precedents that have enduring statewide impact, as has Horton, this week’s recipient of The Connecticut Law Tribune‘s “Service to the Bar” award for the year 2000. The law almost lost Horton to banking — his first line of work as a college grad. But from his beginning law school experiences, he knew he’d found his calling, excelling as a student and then clerking for Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Charles S. House. There he learned first-hand how veteran jurists can be intrigued by spirited intellectual battle over important issues, and appellate work became his field. As a young lawyer, Horton defied the status quo in the groundbreaking 1977 case of Horton v. Meskill. That case successfully challenged the constitutionality of using property taxes alone to fund public education. It is responsible for helping to equalize educational opportunities throughout Connecticut, which has the nation’s highest per capita income. While Horton didn’t argue the original supreme court case, he supplied the legal briefing work. He also provided the plaintiff, his grade-school-age son, Barnaby, who is now a lawyer and state representative. In a less famous “high concept” legal effort, Horton sued on behalf of a group of plaintiffs who said the long court backlogs in Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport denied litigants their constitutional right to a day in court. That 1977 case, Pellegrino v. O’Neill, put a new notion into expressed thinking of the high court, in the form of a strong dissent by Ellen A. Peters. She contended that the Judicial Branch should have, and does have, the power to make sure it can discharge its duties, whether that requires alerting the legislature to its needs, or raising funds on its own as a co-equal branch of government. The legislature has looked at the courts in a new light ever since. In 1998, after a nine-year pro bono effort, Horton and a small group of other idealistic lawyers won the 1998 constitutional case of Sheff v. O’Neill, which was based on state constitutional rights to education and equal protection. It held that the state has an affirmative duty to counteract racial imbalance in the schools in order to promote equalized educational opportunities. Between Horton and Sheff, a quarter-century of unparalleled state constitutional growth, the law books are filled with decisions in which Horton’s advocacy shaped and honed legal thinking on issues ranging from blue laws to assault-rifle regulation. In the midst of the busiest appellate practice in the state, Horton also found time to write a comprehensive history of the state constitution and is recognized as Connecticut’s top authority in that field. He may be the only lawyer in Connecticut history who has read every single state supreme court case. He keeps running statistics on supreme court judicial opinions and can tell which justices have the greatest impact in their opinions, dissents and strategic alliances. Over the last quarter-century, the state supreme court has grown to recognize state constitutional law as something quite different than just a carbon copy of federal constitutional law. Horton, more than any lawyer in the state, has championed this trend, briefing cases to bring into perspective the unique circumstances and historic context in which Connecticut’s constitutional provisions were created. Every year, Horton reviews the efforts of the high court in an article for the Connecticut Bar Journal, bringing to life the personalities and jurisprudence of the justices in his fluid, lively style. On top of that, he has made a habit of reviewing the highlights of the appellate oeuvre for fellow practitioners, as a lecturer at annual bar gatherings, to make it easier for lawyers who aren’t appellate specialists to stay in touch with the most important developments. Hugh C. Macgill, former dean of the University of Connecticut School of Law, praised Horton’s “continued, focused critical attention on state constitutional law.” Horton’s scholarship alone “would be pretty impressive if he were an academic,” said Macgill. The fact he’s produced it on top of a demanding and meaningful legal practice is all the more impressive, the dean said. “Too bad there aren’t more like him!” “In my book Wes is number one. He’s a superb lawyer, he’s a scholar and he’s not stingy with what he knows,” said William F. Gallagher, of New Haven’s Gallagher & Callistro, another appellate practitioner. At the heart of Horton’s enthusiasm and energy is a consuming excitement about ideas. Instead of becoming bored or jaded by his volumes of learning, Horton’s interests seem to play off each other. The long summers he’s spent poring over ancient newspapers in the basement of the state law library give him insights when analyzing the law down to its roots. Horton as author, brief writer and scholar is a solitary voice. At his best, though, he’s fully engaged in dialogue, parrying ideas with a rapt panel of jurists. He doesn’t follow a script. Instead, Horton relishes finding out what issues are bothering his questioners and marshals the legal arguments to put all objections to rest. As animated and enthusiastic as he can get, Horton has a calm understanding of the limits of what he can do. When a judge skewers a pet theory, Horton doesn’t act crushed. He’s more likely to respond, “Well, maybe that’s not my best argument, your honor.” And with Horton, a better argument is usually just around the corner.

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