Connecticut Supreme Court Associate Justice Andrew McDonald was thrust into the national spotlight last month, as his controversial selection by Gov. Dannel Malloy to become chief justice of the court was met with partisan conflict and, ultimately, rejection in the state Senate.
While a successful confirmation of the state’s—and the nation’s—first openly gay chief justice would have set a historic milestone here, Connecticut lawmakers had a different outcome in mind for the 52-year-old Stamford native. Instead of making history, a bitter confirmation process made national headlines for exposing a partisan divide in Connecticut—underscored by personal animosities and dislike of the governor among Republicans, who closed ranks in order to deliver a political defeat.
The unprecedented, protracted battle over a judicial nomination took place in and on press conferences, robocalls and billboard advertisements lobbying for and against the accomplished jurist and former state legislator. McDonald’s opponents cited his work as a lawmaker in opposing the death penalty—and his unwillingness to recuse in the pivotal Santiago capital punishment case—as a basis for rejection, while supporters pointed to the justice’s overwhelming approval among legislators who swiftly confirmed him after his initial nomination to the court in 2012.
While conservative groups assailed McDonald’s pro-choice and marriage equality stances, national progressive organizations such as Moveon.org and the Human Rights Campaign chimed in with adoration. Some supporters claimed an anti-gay bias was at the root of right-wing resistance, but critics painted McDonald as a candidate who was too close to Malloy, having served as general counsel to the governor, and as his longtime friend.
A tie vote in the state’s Judiciary Committee in February resulted in a surprise “unfavorable” recommendation to the state House of Representatives, which approved McDonald by a 75-74 margin on March 12. The state Senate followed up with a 19-16 vote against confirmation on March 27, ending the bid. Both chambers voted almost exclusively along party lines.
Though McDonald would not end up being elevated to chief justice, he remains on the state’s Supreme Court at least through the end of his first term, which comes up in 2020.
McDonald answered the following questions posed to him recently by the Connecticut Law Tribune:
Connecticut Law Tribune: Tell us how you felt to be nominated for chief justice by the governor.
Justice Andrew McDonald: It was a tremendous honor to be nominated, and I am grateful that the governor did so. I was humbled by the trust and confidence he had in me to extend the opportunity to me.
CLT: Why do you think you were not chosen by the Legislature for the job?
McDonald: It is pretty plain that an unprecedented level of partisanship was injected into the confirmation process.
To my knowledge, never before had a political party voted as a unified block against a judicial nominee in the Judiciary Committee, much less in the full Senate. Connecticut has always had a long tradition of appointing nominees based upon their qualifications alone.
At no point during the process did any legislator express any specific concerns relating to the additional responsibilities that the position of chief justice would require me to assume. Several senators acknowledged in their comments that I was qualified, but still voted no. That’s never happened before, and it is a dangerous development for the independence of our judiciary. Unfortunately it also has to be acknowledged that, at least for some legislators, my sexual orientation played a factor in the outcome.
CLT: How did you handle the attention your nomination and possible elevation to be chief justice was getting statewide and, in some cases, nationally?
McDonald: I was aware of it of course, but I did not allow it to distract me from my responsibilities and obligations.
Throughout the process, I kept busy with my work as a justice and spent a great deal of time meeting with legislators, at least those who would afford me that opportunity.
CLT: What part do you think your close working relationship with the governor played in your not getting the post?
McDonald: You’d have to ask those who voted against me that question. There’s no doubt that I have a close relationship with the governor, but a close relationship between a governor and a member of the judiciary is hardly unprecedented.
Many judges—and even prior chief justices—have enjoyed close personal relationships with the governor who has nominated them, and that has never before been considered a negative feature for a nominee.
Anyone who suggests that knowing a governor, or having connections to the governor, plays no role in the selection process is being disingenuous. Pretty much every judge who sits on the bench today is there, in part, because he or she had some connection to the governor who made the nomination.
CLT: Do you think there was any concerted effort to block you from being chief justice because you are openly gay?
McDonald: I wouldn’t characterize it as a concerted effort. However, I do believe that my sexual orientation was a factor for some of those who opposed me.
Biases can take many forms, some explicit and some implicit. While no one explicitly said they were voting against me because I am gay, I know implicit bias against the LGBTQ community, and among other minority groups, continues to persist in society at large.
The Legislature is not immune from implicit bias, nor is the judiciary. It is something we all must acknowledge exists, or we will never overcome it.
CLT: When did you come to the realization that you would not get the nod to be chief justice?
McDonald: I learned that no member of the Senate Republican caucus was going to vote favorably on my nomination the day before the vote was scheduled, effectively scuttling the nomination.
CLT: What has been your proudest moment as justice on the Supreme Court?
McDonald: It’s difficult to isolate just one event, but if I had to it would be the way I have been supported and affirmed by my fellow justices and the court staff throughout this process. They have been exceptionally warm and caring, as have many of the other judges across the state.
CLT: What did you learn about yourself by going through this process?
McDonald: At the end of the day, family and true friends are what matter most—and can get you through whatever struggle or challenge you might face.