Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of profiles on Connecticut judges. It profiles Connecticut Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Robinson.
Robinson, who was appointed chief justice May 3 after serving four and a half years as associate justice, said he’s been told by numerous people what they think of the appointment and the shattering of another glass ceiling. But, in an interview Tuesday with the Connecticut Law Tribune, the Stamford native said the news is just sinking in for him.
“I’m just beginning to really digest what it means to be the first African-American chief justice in the state,” the 60-year-old Robinson said. “I’ve heard from a lot of people, black and white and men and women and politicians and laypeople, on what it means to them. A lot of people are saying it’s wonderful that Connecticut has made this huge step.”
Robinson, who was just the fifth black justice to sit on the Connecticut Appellate Court and the fourth black justice to sit on the Connecticut Supreme Court, said he is honored to forever hold the role as “first” black chief justice in the state.
“I am just now beginning to embrace how important this all is,” he said. “Many people have said they never saw this coming in their lifetime. We are in a nation where you had the first African-American president in my lifetime and then you have me becoming the state’s first African-American chief justice. I’m not sure 20 years ago we could have envisioned those things happening.”
Robinson served as staff counsel for Stamford’s Law Department from 1985-1988 and then became assistant corporation counsel for the city. He remained in that post until 2000, when he was appointed a judge to the Superior Court. He held several roles in that capacity until being appointed to the Connecticut Appellate Court in 2007. He was named justice to the Connecticut Supreme Court in 2013 and for the last two months has served as its chief justice.
Those that have served with him say Gov. Dannel Malloy made the right choice in nominating Robinson to be chief justice.
“He is open-minded and a consensus builder. He is also well liked by his fellow justices and judges throughout the system. He is very approachable,” said former Chief Justice Chase Rogers, now a partner with Hartford’s Day Pitney.
Rogers, who worked on the bench with Robinson since 2013 until she recently stepped down, said those appearing before him must be prepared with their oral arguments. “They need to be prepared because he will be thoroughly prepared. He will ask questions in a soft-spoken voice, but he will expect a direct answer to the question asked.”
Maria Kahn, who joined the Connecticut Supreme Court in November 2017 after serving on the Connecticut Appellate Court, Tuesday called Robinson “a great leader, a good listener and someone who has a good vision for the branch. Whether it be judicial education or outreach to the community, he is very engaged.”
While former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was his legal mentor, his parents were his rock. Robinson said they guided him and his two brothers with love and a compassion for all people.
Robinson said his late father, Herbert Junius Robinson, had only a third-grade education, but showed his sons a lot of love and what it meant to have a strong work ethic. Herbert Robinson, who was usually working two jobs, “always pushed us to get the best education we could. He knew the importance of an education, even though he did not have much of a formal education himself,” the chief justice said.
“I learned so much about work ethic from my dad,” said Robinson, who noted he could only recall his father missing two days of work: one for a funeral for a family member and the other because of a 2-foot snowstorm. “My father was such a big influence on me. My parents were lower middle class and they would have done anything to pay for my education, and I knew that. I did not want to exploit that and so I worked and got student loans.”
Before his father died in 2012, Robinson, who was on the Connecticut Appellate Court at the time, said his father was so proud of him that he made it a point to tell everyone in the hospital where he was that his son was a judge. “I’d walk into the hospital, and strangers would say ‘You are the judge, right?”’
While his father worked, his mother Dorothy, who is now 84 and lives in Stamford, “took care of us at home. She was always there for us every step of the way. She made sure we stayed in school, even when it was difficult. She let me know she was there financially and emotionally,” Robinson said.
As far as the cases he enjoys the most, Robinson said, “I love them all. I really do. It’s as important to me as the people appearing before me.” Cases, though, involving children, he said, are the most emotionally wrought.
Robinson received his law degree from West Virginia University School of Law in 1984. Among his many honors was recently being named one of the NAACP’s 100 Most Influential Blacks in Connecticut. He lives in Stratford with his wife Nancy. The couple has two adult sons, Richard and John.