Appellate Judge Carmen Espinosa spoke about her humble upbringing, defended her judicial temperment and discussed her reputation as an Hispanic “trailblazer” during confirmation hearings before the legislative Judiciary Committee.
The committee voted 40-0 on Friday, Feb. 1 to endorse Espinosa’s nomination to be the first Hispanic justice on the Connecticut Supreme Court. Her nomination now moves forward for consideration by the full House and Senate. The panel also approved three Superior Court judges, three state referees and seven workers’ compensation commissioners.
During an emotional opening statement, Espinosa spoke of her father working in a New Britain lumber yard, lining his shoes with newspaper to keep out the cold, before the rest of her family could join him from Puero Rico.
She was the youngest of the three children, ages 8, 5 and 3, who flew by prop plane to their new life in Connecticut. She was later the 68th female FBI agent and later became an assistant U.S. attorney for 11 years. In 1992, she became the state’s first Hispanic female Superior Court Judge. “I sometimes have been called a trailblazer,” she said. “If that is true, I get that from my parents.”
Judiciary Committee members praised Espinosa during questioning that lasted 55 minutes. She told them she oposed racial quotas, but approved of affirmative action. She declined to offer an opinion over whether a clause in the state Constitution sustaining a right to bear arms was stronger than the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. She said that issue could come before the state Supreme Court.
She also dismissed criticism of her judicial temperament. The Law Tribune, in its Jan. 14 edition, reported that members of the appellate bar had formed mixed opinions of Espinosa during her nearly two years on the Appellate Court. Several lawyers said they found her impatient or overly quick to come to a conclusion.
They also noted she had a high-profile verbal encounter with a defendant during her years as a Superior Court judge.
“Some lawyers get upset if their friends didn’t get the nod, or a close family member,” Espinosa said in addressing the criticism. She emphasized that much of what she has done on the bench has been recorded, and sometimes videotaped, and can be judged on its own merits. She also said that trial transcripts don’t always capture the details of what was happening in a courtroom.
In the days before the hearing, Espinosa received backing from a high-profile judge. Former state Supreme Court Justice Lubbie Harper Jr., now chairman of the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparity in the Criminal Justice System, took issue with the Law Tribune’s article in a letter to the editor. (See page 30.)
Harper noted that none of the critics of Espinosa would allow their names to be published. The 10 appellate lawyers who were interviewed said their careers would be jeopardized if they criticized a Supreme Court nominee on the record.
“The article was filled with negative comments, all based on unattributed sources, and besmirches the name of an accomplished member of the Hispanic community whose life illustrates the principle that hard work and determination can pay off,” Harper wrote.
The commission Harper now heads up “knows that the ‘face of the system’ – the way it appears to the public – is a critical factor in shaping how our criminal justice system is perceived. The Governor took an important step in nominating Judge Espinosa.”
Espinosa was asked specifically about the case of Duane Banks v. Thomas. When an outspoke defendant in her courtroom wouldn’t heed Espinosa’s requests to quiet down in 1994, she awarded three successive criminal contempt rulings in a matter of seconds, totaling nine months in jail. A divided state Supreme Court ruled that she had handed out excessive punishment and reduced the sentence to three months.
Espinosa tried to provide context to the incident, noting at the time she was working under pressure in Hartford Part A court. “I dealt with the most serious of crimes, rapes, murders and shootings,” she said, adding: “I am not a machine.”
Twenty-one years later, she said, “I am older and wiser and have learned from those 21 years.”
Espinosa was also asked by Rep.Thomas O’Dea, R-Wilton about her sanctioning a Hartford lawyer with a $100 fine for missing a pretrial hearing, and later questioning his veracity. Espinosa declined to discuss the matter, she said, out of respect for the lawyer’s privacy. In any event, she said, she didn’t really remember the case. “It was one of many,” she said.
Espinosa also noted that she had been approved five times by the Judicial Selection Commission, and three times previously by the legislature.
In addition to Espinosa, the Judiciary Committee voted to approve three Superior Court judges — Jon C. Blue, Henry S. Cohn, and Cynthia K. Swienton — for new eight-year terms. They also confirmed three referees — retired judges who still handle some court-related matters: Walter R. Budney, James G. Kenefick Jr. and Paul M. Vasington.
Seven workers compensation commissioners were also approved: Randy Lynn Cohen, Daniel E. Dilzer, Christine L. Engel, Jodi Murray Gregg, Stephen Michael Morelli, David Wayne Schoolcraft, and Michelle D. Truglia. •