Last week, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Appellate Court Judge Carmen Espinosa “is among our state’s most respected jurists” and nominated her to the state Supreme Court. If confirmed by the legislature, she would become the state’s first Hispanic justice.

The choice came as a surprise to Connecticut’s appellate lawyers. And while some praised Espinosa as a pleasant, articulate judge, there was an undercurrent of discontent. In interviews, 10 appellate practitioners expressed misgivings about Espinosa, offering criticisms of her judicial temperament and her work habits.

None of the 10 would speak for the record, saying they could not do so without jeopardizing their livelihood.

“Everybody’s unimpressed — and they’re right,” said one Appellate Court regular.

“I wish the governor was less interested in making history and more interested in creating a great court,” said another attorney.

Four of the 10 appellate lawyers interviewed said they found Espinosa impatient or overly quick to come to a conclusion. “She’s not the most contemplative judge,” said one practitioner.

Kimberly Knox, of the Hartford appellate firm of Horton, Shields & Knox, has a much more positive view of Espinosa. Knox is a former chair of the Connecticut Bar Association’s Appellate Practice Section and is on deck as president-elect of the CBA.

“My understanding is that [Espinosa] was very well received when she was on the trial bench in Bridgeport for so many years,” Knox said. “As an Appellate Court judge, she’s shown due deference to the trial courts’ decisions, which reflects her recent experiences as trial judge. I think her decisions as an appellate judge are well researched and well written and very solid. I’m delighted to see her join the Supreme Court.”

Confrontations

Espinosa was born in Puerto Rico and her family came to Connecticut at the age of 3. She graduated from Central Connecticut State University and earned a master’s degree in Hispanic studies from Brown in 1973. Her law degree is from George Washington University Law School.

After graduating from law school, she became an FBI agent, working in New Haven. In 1979, then-U.S. Attorney Richard Blumenthal hired her as an assistant U.S. attorney. In 1993, she was elevated to the state Superior Court bench by Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr.

On the trial bench, Espinosa became known for her no-nonsense approach — and for two widely reported confrontations.

In the case of Duane Banks v. Thomas, the state Supreme Court reviewed the legality and fairness of Espinosa giving accused burglar Duane Banks nine months in prison for criminal contempt when he insisted on being heard in the courtroom and failed to quiet down when admonished. The entire outburst lasted about a minute, as Espinosa stacked one three-month sentence upon the next.

The high court was split three ways. Writing for the majority, Justice Richard N. Palmer found that only one three-month period was deserved. Justice Robert I. Berdon, dissenting, felt the judge’s use of her contempt powers was entirely uncalled for. Two conservative justices, Francis McDonald and Christine S. Vertefeuille, also dissented, saying they would jail Banks for nine months.

Meanwhile, the Law Tribune Editorial Board wrote: “Even judges with poor temperament must learn to treat those appearing before them, including those who are indigent and powerless, with dignity respect and patience. Those who cannot responsibly occupy positions of power over others should not be given it. In short, they should consider alternative careers.”

Another time, Espinosa threatened to suspend Hartford lawyer Joseph Elder after he was accused of lying to her about a mix-up in paying a $100 fine for missing a pretrial conference. Attorney William Gallagher, of New Haven, represented Elder during a court hearing, where Gallagher quoted caselaw on use of a judge’s contempt power. Judges, Gallagher said, are supposed to be people of fortitude, who “must be on guard against confusing offenses to their sensitivities with the obstruction of justice.”

In the end, Elder was not suspended, and Espinosa made no grievance complaint.

‘Intellectual Attention’

In 2011, Malloy nominated Espinosa to the Appellate Court, and she was confirmed by the legislature.

In nearly two years on the Appellate Court, Espinosa has drawn criticism from the appellate bar for not being fully “engaged.” Some observe that while she unfailingly shows up to hear arguments, she often works from home. Appellate advocates said that can undermine the operations of an appeals court, where collegiality helps improve legal decision-making.

“It’s cross-pollination of ideas,” explained one veteran attorney. “A lot goes on in discussions with clerks and other judges on an informal basis. The parties [in any case] are entitled to a judge who deliberates with colleagues about the merits of a case, and who’s bringing their full intellectual attention.”

There are no attendance records kept for Appellate judges, but there are for Superior Court judges. Espinosa’s records show no pattern of poor attendance, according to Chief Court Administrator Barbara Quinn. In Espinosa’s last full year on the Superior Court bench, she took 45 vacation, personal and sick days, but did not take her 10 bereavement and education days.

During her time on the bench, Espinosa has served on the Client Security Fund Committee and was a member of the Judicial Branch Education Committee of the Connecticut Judges’ Institute. Last week, after her nomination, Espinosa met at the offices of Day Pitney with members of the appellate law section of the CBA.

The co-chairs of the CBA section, Linda S. Morkan of Robinson & Cole and Kathy Calibey, of RisCassi & Davis, issued a prepared comment about Espinosa and her visit. They said she “has already proven herself as an appellate jurist in her time sitting on the Appellate Court and we have every reason to believe that she will be a welcome addition to our state’s highest court. At our invitation, Judge Espinosa recently attended our section meeting for an informal discussion with our members about appeals and the appellate process. We all appreciated her willingness to share her experiences and insights.”

‘Anything Is Possible’

At the press conference where Malloy announced the nomination, Espinosa thanked the governor, saying, “I fully understand the responsibility that will fall upon my shoulders if confirmed.” The judge, who spent some time as a Southington school teacher before entering the legal field, said she hoped her nomination “serves as an example to young Hispanic children that anything is possible if they stay in school and use education as the bridge to success.”

Connecticut Hispanic Bar Association president Maria Garcia Quintner, a law clerk for U.S. Magistrate Judge Holly Fitzsimmons in Bridgeport, said her organization was pleased with Espinosa’s nomination. She said one of her group’s goals is to encourage lawyers of color to apply to become judges. All judicial candidates must be vetted by the Judicial Selection Commission.

“We have many members in private practice, and also in the public sector and some in law schools,” who have been urged to get “on the list” for judicial selection.

At the same news conference Malloy spoke of “building a bench” that more closely reflected the demographics of the state. Malloy, too, said he has been actively encouraging minority candidates to go through the judicial selection application process.

The governor’s previous nominee, Andrew J. McDonald, also was an historic first. If confirmed, McDonald will be the first openly gay Supreme Court justice. Although some have noted that McDonald lacks any experience as a judge, there has been little criticism since last month’s nomination, given his legal experience as a Pullman & Comley partner, as former co-chair of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee and his recent service as chief counsel in the governor’s office.

The appellate lawyers interviewed for this article say they have no problem with efforts to diversify the bench. They said Hartford Superior Court Judge Antonio C. Robaina would have been an excellent Hispanic Supreme Court nominee. And Appellate Court Judge Richard Robinson and Superior Court Judge Angela Robinson, both of whom are black, appeared to have widespread support. “They’re both thoughtful, reflective thinkers,” commented one practitioner.

McDonald and Espinosa would take the places of Justices Ian McLachlan and Lubbie Harper Jr., both of whom reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 last year. Both of Malloy’s nominees will face questioning by the legislative Judiciary Committee, with McDonald scheduled for Jan. 14. •