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A slouch, a smirk and unresponsive answers to legislators’ questions helped earn New Haven Superior Court Judge Joseph A. Mengacci two votes against his appointment for an eight-year term before the legislative Judiciary Committee Feb. 18. James K. Robertson Jr., whose nomination for a similar term on the bench was opposed in that morning’s lead Hartford Courant editorial — due to his deferred bill for $100,000 in unpaid legal work for Gov. John G. Rowland — was approved with only one “nay” vote. Both men had appeared before the committee the previous Friday, Feb. 13, and presented a vivid contrast in styles. Robertson was prepared and remained amiable throughout the public grilling. Mengacci, meanwhile, gave no opening statement addressing swirling media charges that he had regularly hosted Rowland and his family at a Ludlow, Vt., ski resort. He was quizzed most by Sen. Andrew J. McDonald, D-Stamford, a co-chair of the committee, asking who paid for lift tickets, food, and the nature of holiday and birthday gifts to the Rowlands. Mengacci said his wife — who works in Rowland’s office — picked out all gifts. In response to a question from state Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, Mengacci replied defensively “Nothing was ever given to John Rowland at any time, different from any other friend, because he was governor. Friends exchange gifts.” Robertson and Mengacci are among a crop of new judges appointed on an interim basis last year. In vying for final confirmation by the full legislature, their connections to Rowland have suddenly come under fire in light of the ever-escalating corruption probe against the governor and members of his administration. The Judiciary Committee postponed voting on the nominations while legislative researchers confirmed a loophole in the ethics rules, which exempts “services” from the definition of gifts. But Mengacci’s demeanor cost him McDonald’s vote. “There are a number of qualities I look for in a nominee — a sense of justice, a sense of fairness, and someone who is humbled by that office,” said McDonald, when the committee resumed the hearing last Wednesday. McDonald said he didn’t see that in Mengacci’s responses, and was voting against the nomination. Rep. Kenneth P. Green, D-Bloomfield, also voted against both nominees. COLLEAGUES LEND SUPPORT Robertson was far more proactive. The former managing partner of Waterbury’s Carmody & Torrance read a long statement that attempted to explain his deferred billings arrangement with Rowland and why the law firm got over $5 million in legal work from state agencies during Rowland’s administration. That amount does not include firm’s share of a massive settlement with the tobacco industry, split between Carmody and three other law firms. He attempted to explain why the firm’s reputation and new interest in state work were based on qualifications, not contacts. And he acknowledged that, “being known as the governor’s counsel has undoubtedly affected my reputation and the firm’s reputation,” before adding that “Until recently, it undoubtedly affected our reputations in a positive way.” Robertson was almost over-prepared for the Feb. 13 hearing, with testimonial affidavits from Day, Berry & Howard’s top litigation partner, Thomas J. Groark, Robinson & Cole’s James A. Wade, and offers to call Superior Court and Supreme Court judges as character witnesses. He noted that his interest and fascination with politics was not new — that he’d become a justice of the peace at 19, and was a leader of Connecticut’s Young Democrats. After building a thriving legal practice, Robertson attended Yale Divinity School and the Hartford Seminary during the 1990s, and, like Mengacci, chaired the Judicial Selection Commission, which recommends a pool of candidates for the bench. Lawlor, in voting for Robertson’s appointment, said he hoped Robertson would honor his pledge to cooperate with the 10-member Select Committee of Inquiry, which is probing whether to recommend Rowland’s impeachment. Neither Robertson nor Mengacci attended the Feb. 18 vote. State Rep. Robert Farr, R-West Hartford, the ranking minority member of the Judiciary Committee, commented afterward in an interview, “When I was in law school, the saying was that a judge is just a lawyer who knows the governor. But the way things are going, I’d hate to have it become just the opposite — that to be a judge, you have to prove you don’t know the governor at all.”

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