The probable next justice on the Connecticut Supreme Court is known among appellate lawyers for being a tough jurist who is not afraid to mix it up in the most intricate of legal arguments.
Gov. Dannel Malloy’s nominee for the state’s highest court, Appellate Court Judge Richard A. Robinson, started out representing the city of Stamford in employment law and building code matters more than 20 years ago, and later established himself as a judge of many talents.
“He’s handled all sorts of difficult situations and difficult cases,” said Judge Alexandria DiPentima, who is the chief administrative judge for the Appellate Court. “I have the highest regard for Judge Robinson, and one reason is he’s a thoughtful, fair-minded and well-reasoned judge.”
One little-known fact, colleagues confirmed, is that Robinson spends his free time practicing martial arts. According to transcripts from his 2007 Appellate Court confirmation hearings with the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, Robinson compared his experience with a variation on taekwondo to his legal career.
“My wife’s a third-degree black belt and my son is a first-degree black belt. I’m an apprentice black belt, so I have to bow to them when I come in the house, but that’s not so bad,” said Robinson. (Legal community sources say Robinson has achieved additional black belt levels since then.)
Asked about his desire to be an appellate judge, seven years after he was appointed to the Superior Court bench, Robinson said he saw that position “as the next level.”
“The thing about martial arts is, you never stop learning,” said Robinson, whose nomination must be approved by the legislature. “You never want to stop growing. As an individual, I don’t ever want to stop learning. I don’t ever want to stop growing. This is my next step in evolution.”
Robinson grew up in Stamford and graduated from the University of Connecticut, followed by law school at West Virginia University in 1984.
After spending 15 years as the assistant corporation counsel for Stamford, Robinson was appointed in 2000 by Gov. John Rowland to be a Superior Court judge. In that role, Robinson heard criminal and civil cases in Stamford and New Britain before moving up to the Appellate Court.
Since then, Robinson has been involved in several key rulings, including a decision earlier this year that blasted a state prosecutor for misconduct in the 1998 murder trial of a man serving life in prison for killing a Waterbury bar owner.
Also this year, Robinson penned a decision in a ruling against state Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, D-Harford, in an absentee ballot case in which she was fined by the State Elections Enforcement Commission. Gonzalez had been fined $4,500 for four counts of election law violations. In her appeal, Gonzalez argued that the hearing officer who imposed the fine, Stephen Cashman, was biased against her and should have recused himself.
Robinson, in the opinion, clearly explained why the court disagreed.
“To overcome the presumption of impartiality, the plaintiff was required to demonstrate that Cashman had prejudged the facts of this case,” he wrote, explaining the record showed Cashmen acted as one of five commissioners who together found reason to believe Gonzalez violated the law.
Other appellate court decisions involved prejudgment remedies in civil cases. From the defense perspective, attorneys have long worried that when judges grant prejudgment remedies—such as forbidding one party to a lawsuit from selling property until a trial is held—that it tips the perception scale in favor of plaintiffs when the case goes to trial. From the plaintiff’s perspective, attorneys worry the prejudgment remedy hearing would force them to tip their hand as to trial strategy.
In Gateway, Kelso & Co. v. West Hartford No. 1, Robinson held in 2011 that in a hearing on an application for a prejudgment remedy, a plaintiff does not have an opportunity to fully and fairly litigate the merits of its claim, and therefore, collateral estoppel effect should not be given to findings made based on such a hearing.
The decision, said lawyer David Dobin of Cohen and Wolf in an article on the ruling, “sheds light on the substantial procedural disparity” that exists between prejudgment remedy hearings and full scale trials on the merits.
At a Dec. 10 press conference, which happened to be Robinson’s 56th birthday, Malloy said he first got to know Robinson back when he was the mayor of Stamford, and Robinson worked in the office of corporation counsel. He credited Robinson’s ability for deep intellectual analysis among reasons he was chosen for the Supreme Court.
“I am truly humbled by the thought of being considered for this high honor,” Robinson said. “I will truly miss my colleagues at the Appellate Court.”
If confirmed, Robinson will replace Justice Flemming Norcott Jr., who reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 this fall. Norcott had been the only African-American justice on the court since Lubbie Harper Jr. also reached retirement age in 2012.
“Judge Robinson has been an attentive, measured jurist during his 13 years on the bench, making him an ideal candidate for the bench,” Malloy said of his nomination. “Serving on our state’s highest court is an immense duty, as it is the final arbiter on issues that impact virtually every aspect of our lives.”
Robinson was distinguished from a list of 20 contenders not only for his intellect but also for “a wealth of experience” that extends beyond the bench, Malloy said.
That experience includes holding leadership positions with the NAACP and state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.
“I am confident that the General Assembly will agree that having Judge Robinson on the Supreme Court will serve the people of Connecticut well,” Malloy said.
Kimberly Knox, president of the Connecticut Bar Association and an appellate lawyer with Horton, Shields & Knox in Hartford, said Robinson’s record on the bench is one of “solid, well-reasoned decisions. Judge Robinson is highly respected by the appellate bar.”
Appellate advocates who have interacted with Robinson in the courtroom echoed that. Jeffrey Babbin, a partner at Wiggin and Dana, said his colleagues viewed the nomination “as a very welcome development.”
Although they have had differences of opinion on legal questions, Babbin said Robinson is “always prepared for coming out on the bench for argument and active dialogue with counsel. I’ve been impressed in his approach to legal issues and by his judicial temperament.”
DiPentima, who has worked closely with Robinson in the six years since he joined the Appellate Court, said that in addition to his broad understanding of municipal law, Robinson is known for “his wonderful sense of awareness for cultural competency.”
Along with his duties as judge, Robinson has served as chair of the Judicial Branch’s Cultural Competency Advisory Committee, which works to increase understanding by court employees of members of the public from different cultures.
Robinson is Malloy’s fourth nominee to the seven-member court during his tenure as governor. In addition to Harper, Malloy has nominated Andrew McDonald and Carmen Espinosa. McDonald, a long-time state lawmaker who had been serving as an aide to Malloy, is the first openly gay justice. Espinosa, who had been an Appellate Court judge, is the first Latina justice.
Given Malloy’s record, members of affinity bar groups expressed hope in October, when Norcott reached the mandatory retirement date, that Malloy would choose as his replacement another member of a minority group.
At the time, judicial observers named Robinson as a possible front runner. Another African-American jurist believed to be on the radar was Superior Court Judge Angela C. Robinson, a former Bridgeport lawyer and no relation to the Appellate Court judge.
“We anticipate that Governor Malloy will nominate an individual who not only has a deep understanding of the law, but one who has also shown commitment to equal access and fair play in our legal system,” Genea Bell, president of the George C. Crawford Black Bar Association, said in October. “It is our hope that the next justice will bring to the court a diversity of philosophy and perspective that reflects the growing racial and cultural diversity of Connecticut’s population and legal community.”•