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State Supreme Court Nominee Clears Early Hurdle

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The Connecticut Supreme Court.  Photo by WTIC's Matt Dwyer.

The Connecticut Supreme Court. Photo by WTIC’s Matt Dwyer.

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HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Former Stamford state Sen. Andrew McDonald, the governor’s legal counsel, cleared his first legislative hurdle Monday as he moved closer to becoming the next member of the Connecticut State Supreme Court.

The overwhelming 40-2 vote came after the Democrat assured his former colleagues that he can be a neutral member of the state’s highest court, despite years of advocating for various hot-button issues as a legislator, including same-sex marriage, and more recently serving as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s top lawyer.

McDonald appeared before the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, the first step in his confirmation process. Both Democratic and Republican committee members praised McDonald as a talented, hardworking and respected lawyer and lawmaker. His nomination now awaits action by the full General Assembly.

“If you think about it, he has accomplished himself in every branch of government,” said Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, the ranking Senate Republican on the Judiciary Committee. He said McDonald’s “depth and range of experience” will be “a great service for all of the people of the state of Connecticut.”

If confirmed, the 46-year-old McDonald said he would carefully analyze each case to determine whether he should recuse himself. He ruled out participating in any cases that might involve Malloy personally because he considers the governor a longtime friend.

“It’s something that you have to remain vigilant about for the entire time you remain on the bench,” McDonald said when asked about becoming an impartial jurist.

The socially conservative Family Institute of Connecticut, however, is urging its approximate 10,000 supporters to oppose McDonald as the confirmation process continues because of his support of gay marriage and a controversial yet unsuccessful proposal in 2009 that would have given lay members of the Roman Catholic Church more control over parish finances. McDonald said the idea originally came from a parishioner at a church where a priest had stolen money.

Peter Wolfgang, the group’s executive director, said he worries whether McDonald will apply the law fairly to everyone, if named to the court.

“He led the most blatantly unconstitutional attack on religious liberty in the state of Connecticut in recent memory, and so we’re concerned about the possibility of having a justice on the Connecticut Supreme Court who is pursuing a personal agenda, an anti-Catholic agenda,” Wolfgang said.

He said “people of traditional values” might not receive equal justice under the law.

McDonald, who would be the state’s first openly gay appellate jurist, denied having an anti-Catholic bias. He said he was born into the Roman Catholic Church, was baptized as a Catholic and is still a member of the church.

“My religious faith, in my opinion, holds no sway over what I would ever do as a member of the judiciary,” he said, adding how he worked collaboratively with the Connecticut Catholic Conference on various issues. When the legislature updated its marriage laws to conform to the State Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage, McDonald worked with the conference on language allowing religious organizations to opt out of having to provide gay and lesbian couples services, goods or facilities for same-sex weddings, he said.

For most of his legal career, McDonald, currently the governor’s legal counsel, worked as a litigation partner for Pullman & Comley LLC, based in Stamford. He chaired the law firm’s appellate practice. He also served as director of legal affairs and corporation counsel for the city of Stamford, from 1999 to 2002.

He is expected to replace Justice Lubbie Harper Jr., who has reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 for state judges.

The legislature also needs to act this session on Malloy’s second nomination to the State Supreme Court, Appellate Court Judge Carmen Espinosa.

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