Andrew J. McDonald, the former co-chair of the legislative Judiciary Committee, last week won the panel’s overwhelming — but not unanimous — approval to become a state Supreme Court justice.

The lawyer-dominated committee voted 40-2 to send the Democrat’s nomination to the full General Assembly. In recent years, the committee members, often led by McDonald, had regularly peppered judicial nominees with probing questions. But this time around, the questioning of McDonald, who for the past two years has been chief counsel to the governor’s office, was almost cursory.

McDonald, a former partner at Pullman & Comley, has no trial-level judicial experience, but that seemed to be a non-issue for the Judiciary Committee. McDonald said he felt his extensive experience in the other two branches of government was actually a plus, and that his time in the governor’s office and his seven years as a Judiciary Committee leader left him well-versed on legal and public policy matters.

Nor was there much reference to the fact that McDonald, who as a lawmaker strongly backed same-sex marriage, would be the state’s first openly gay justice, though several lawmakers did make a point of welcoming his husband, Charles Gray, to the hearing.

Instead, the few pointed questions coming from Republicans targeted McDonald’s backing of a controversial 2009 bill that would have altered the internal organization of Catholic parishes by giving lay leaders more control over parish finances.

McDonald explained the measure at length. He stated that it came at the request of Thomas Gallagher, a Greenwich lawyer and Catholic reform activist, in an effort to create a layer of protection after two parishes suffered embezzlement losses from priests in excess of $1 million each. Just the prospect of having a public hearing on the matter inflamed thousands of citizens, who massed by the thousand at the state Capitol as mounted police helped keep order. McDonald said he was threatened with physical harm, and the bill was widely condemned as unconstitutional. It was “boxed” by lawmakers, and never proceeded to a public hearing.

State Rep. Matthew Ritter, D-Hartford, gave an impassioned explanation of the difficulty in knowing whether a legislative proposal is constitutional or not, at its earliest stages. Ritter acknowledged the church issue was foremost on the minds of people who sent Ritter e-mails opposing McDonald’s nomination.

“The word ‘unconstitutional’ has been thrown out a lot here today,” as if constitutionality is a black and white issue, Ritter said. “It’s just simply not the case. I think people need to be reminded that oftentimes we pass statutes with 100 people voting yes in the General Assembly. Campaign law finance reform is an example — and it was voted unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Does that mean everybody who voted ‘yes’ somehow is not adhering to the Constitution, does not respect the Constitution? Of course not. We make tough calls here.”

Asked if he was biased against the Catholic church, McDonald responded” “I don’t believe I have any bias against the Catholic Church. It’s the church I was born into, the church that baptized me and the church I am still a member of.”

As an example of his work with the Connecticut Catholic Conference, McDonald noted that he opposed legislation that would have extended the statute of limitations for sex abuse claimants against Hartford’s St. Francis Hospital, which was the target of dozens of lawsuits by plaintiffs who claimed they had been sexually abused as youngsters by Dr. George Reardon.

McDonald said he opposed the measure because reinstating claims that had already been legally dismissed was not good public policy.

The legislature who had proposed the statute of limitations extension, Rep. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, praised McDonald’s patience during his time in the legislature. “It speaks to your ability to have a judicial temperament,” she said. “People have come before you criticizing the morality of your very family, and you sat there calmly and politely and gave that person as much respect [as possible].”

Rep. Richard A. Smith, R-New Fairfield, is a second-term lawmaker and a solo lawyer. He asked McDonald who he would speak for as a Supreme Court justice. Without hesitation, McDonald responded, “I don’t want to be anybody’s voice. That’s not what I perceive as the role of a Supreme Court justice. The responsibility is to take the facts and the law as presented, and apply the law to the facts as best you can. And to allow the litigants an opportunity to be heard, and receive a timely resolution of their dispute.”

Smith replied, “I was actually hoping you would answer the question that way. I don’t think it should be a voice for anyone. I appreciate your answer.”

Rep. Themis Klarides, R-Derby, asked McDonald about whether his admitted personal friendship with Gov. Dannel Malloy would pose any problem when he becomes a judge. She hinted at past problems of other judicial candidates who were friendly with a governor.

As Judiciary Committee co-chair, McDonald closely quizzed Judge Joseph Mengacci in 2007 about his personal social relationship with then-Gov. John Rowland. After Mengacci became incensed, he was criticized for a lack of judicial temperament, and lost his bid for judicial reappointment.

McDonald said, “no,” his relationship with the governor would not affect his rulings.

The state Supreme Court currently has two vacancies, as Justices Ian McLachlan and Lubbie Harper Jr. both reached mandatory retirement age of 70. The Judiciary Committee plans to hold hearings on Malloy’s second nominee, Appellate Judge Carmen Espinosa, in late January or early February.•