Breaking a streak of 136 years, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy last week became the first governor to address the Connecticut Bar Association.

In a wide-ranging speech at the CBA annual meeting in Hartford, the former prosecutor drew upon his astounding personal biography and commented upon a range of legal and societal issues, ranging from the impact of race on marijuana decriminalization to judicial pay and pro bono work.

“I bear the badge of being an attorney with great honor,” Malloy said.

Introducing Malloy, outgoing CBA president Keith Braddock Gallant praised the Stamford Democrat’s diversified judicial appointments, support for marriage equality and abolition of the death penalty.

Malloy’s 2010 election victory was paper-thin, in part because pro-death penalty sentiment had been piqued by the grisly 2007 home invasion and triple murder of a Cheshire physician’s family. Outlawing state executions for future crimes, said Gallant, “in the context of recent horrific events, is a model for the use of political leadership skill in the service of societal morality.”

The governor spoke of his own bleak beginnings. “I was a person of whom little was actually expected,” he said, “having been born with severe learning disabilities and physical disabilities. Most people counted me out right through the fourth grade, when they were still saying I was suffering from mental retardation, as that term was then used.”

His mother was told her expectations for him were unrealistic. Not only was Malloy unable to read properly, “I had physical disabilities that required years of therapy to overcome. “But my mother was actually right. I had some potential.” He paused while the audience chuckled appreciatively.

Malloy didn’t begin to excel academically until the last two years of high school, but, in his senior year, Malloy was hospitalized with a football injury so serious he was not expected to live. Because he was in intensive care, Malloy didn’t apply to college the normal way. In the spring of 1972, he wrote to several schools describing his life-and-near-death experience, and Boston College was one that replied. They clicked.

To study, Malloy compensated for his reading problem by listening to books for the blind. Meanwhile, his future wife transcribed his dictated papers. On graduating with honors from Boston College School of Law, Malloy was offered a job in the Brooklyn district attorney’s office. “I was extremely lucky,” he said more than once.

“That’s when I had a fight,” Malloy said. “You see, New York State had never allowed a person to take a bar exam orally who wasn’t blind. And yet I had to take that bar exam orally, because it is substantially difficult for me to process written language, I really can’t do that. So I had to have that fight, and when I took that exam in New York, and Massachusetts — and a year later when I did it in Connecticut — I was the first person to take the essay portion orally in each of those states.”

His 23 felony trials as a prosecutor — four of them murder cases — resulted in 22 convictions. That experience, and his subsequent years as mayor of Stamford, left him with some strong views about the deficiencies in both the educational and the legal systems.

Malloy’s 16 years of active legal practice, and his educational obstacles, have helped him as governor, he said. “I examine every issue as a trial lawyer would examine it. I examine educational issues as someone who comes with an educational deficiency background, who also overcame it, and wonder why we can’t do more to help other people overcome those deficiencies, and why we can’t hold ourselves to a higher standard.”

Speaking without notes, Malloy built to a crescendo moment. “That’s why we absolutely have to point out to the broader society that having school systems that fail to educate properly 45 percent of their students is an absolute violation of our basic civil rights and in our own state, where we’ve done so many other things.

“To see in Hartford or New Haven or Bridgeport 45 percent of the students never receiving a high school diploma, and then not changing our approach to education makes no sense at all.”

He looked intently at the audience, concluding, “And let me say this quite clearly, if the vast majority of those children were white, we would have done something about it a long time ago, and it would not have taken my ascendency to governor to take on the educational issues in this state.”

Malloy linked his administration’s effort to decriminalize marijuana possession to Latino and African-American having inadequate access to legal defenders. As a result of minor drug busts, he suggested, too many children of color are being pushed into the prison cycle.

“I understood that having marijuana criminalized was disproportionately affecting brown and black children in our state,” Malloy said. “The ability of those children to receive the kind of representation that they would receive from trial lawyers represented in this room is non-existent or extremely difficult.”

The governor explained why his administration backed a new, independent commission that will research and propose judicial salaries. The time-worn notion that judges’ salaries could rise only when a part-time legislature approved pay increases for itself was nonsensical, Malloy said. Keeping judicial salaries attractive helps insure that the state’s most able lawyers will be interested in a judicial career, he said.

Malloy gave some insight into his support for death penalty, and capital punishment’s future. The governor, who supported the legislature’s successful efforts to repeal the death penalty for future crimes, twice cite the work of Yale Law School professor John J. Donohue, who has done statistical analyses that indicate that the death penalty is imposed unevenly in Connecticut.

“When Professor Donohue’s exhaustive study of all homicides over the last 40 years is understood by the bench,” said Malloy, “we’re going to reach a conclusion — in all likelihood — that being prosecuted in one city for one crime shouldn’t mean that you’re seven times more likely to receive a particular punishment than if you’d been prosecuted in any other city in the state.”

Malloy also had well-nuanced praise for the half dozen lawyers who were recognized with awards for their pro bono work. Richard D. Harris, of Day Pitney’s New Haven office, an intellectual property lawyer whose pro bono work is with Lawyers for Children America, said he agreed with the governor’s views about lawyers’ power to effect change through public service.

“It’s great to hear the chief executive of our state address the importance of public service law, as well as pro bono work — a call to action at a time when there’s clearly increased need,” said Harris. “Often, by doing this [sort of work], I think, we get more than we give.”

Edward Heath, a partner at the Hartford offices of Robinson & Cole, called Malloy “an inspirational speaker, and the speech was stirring.”

“He’s an emblem of our profession,” said Heath, a member of Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers’ committee on pro bono legal work. “It makes the difference when the chief justice, when the governor, when the bar association stands up and says, `Pro bono is essential.’ “•

Good Deeds

The following attorneys were honored for their pro bono work at last week’s Connecticut Bar Association annual meeting.

•Jill Seaman Planter, of Greenwich, has worked pro bono for Connecticut Legal Services Family Unit since 1997, donating more than $150,000 in fees earned representing children on a court- appointed basis.

•Allan P. Cramer and Anthony E. Ahearn, of Cramer & Ahern in Westport, have worked on a complex divorce case.

•Richard D. Harris, of Day Pitney’s Hartford office, has provided help to children in need.

•Edward J. Heath, of Robinson & Cole in Hartford, has assisted the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center.

•Gregory N. Smith, of Ridgefield, has handled school expulsion cases.

•Paralegal Lynn Logemann has worked on expungement cases for Statewide Legal Services in Middletown.