The sharply partisan fight over the confirmation of Andrew J. McDonald as chief justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court has morphed into an unprecedented, full-throated political campaign likely to escalate with the broadcast of television ads urging Senate Republicans to drop their opposition.
True Justice, a lobbying group quickly organized by supporters of McDonald as Republicans signaled an intention to block the promotion of the openly gay and liberal associate justice, has reserved time on at least two Hartford television stations, Fox 61 and WFSB, Channel 3, and Fairfield County cable systems.
McDonald was also scheduled to meet Thursday with Senate Republican leader Len Fasano of North Haven, whose caucus holds the key to McDonald’s confirmation in the evenly divided Senate. Fasano, who says he is leaning against confirmation, has been reaching out to newspaper editorial boards to explain his concerns.
The House of Representatives has scheduled a vote for Monday, and House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said he is confident the chamber will approve McDonald’s nomination.
The Senate is unlikely to act for at least a week, allowing McDonald’s supporters to lobby GOP senators.
Connecticut has seen political fights over previous judicial nominations, but none matching the deepening conflict over McDonald, a Democrat who resigned from the state Senate in January 2011 to become the general counsel to his longtime friend and political ally, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
The governor nominated him to the Supreme Court in 2013, when McDonald was confirmed by lopsided votes of 33-3 in the Senate and 125-20 in the House.
McDonald’s nomination as chief justice made him the target of an anonymous campaign of homophobic slurs on the internet, one that Fasano says in no way reflects the attitude of Republican lawmakers.
“The question before us is whether Andrew would make a good chief justice of the Supreme Court and overseer of all the courts,” Fasano said.
The legal community anticipated the coming fight a month ago, sending lawmakers a letter signed by nearly four dozen prominent attorneys, both Republicans and Democrats.
Without mentioning McDonald’s nomination, the lawyers cautioned legislators against letting “partisan politics diminish the judicial confirmation process.”
True Justice, a group formed by a friend and former colleague, John F. Stafstrom Jr., upped the ante by registering as a lobbying interest and paying for digital ads and a mechanized, targeted phone-calling campaign directed at Republican senators.
“The politicization of a chief justice pick, this is not the first time. The Peter Zarella nomination was politicized,” said John P. McKinney, a former Senate GOP leader and law clerk at the Supreme Court. “What is new and what is very dangerous is big money coming to campaign on behalf of a Supreme Court justice or chief justice nominee.”
The True Justice digital ad, which is posted on a Facebook page, connects the Connecticut Republicans to President Trump.
“You can stop the hate from coming into Connecticut,” a female announcer says, as pictures of Trump and Vice President Pence are shown. “Supreme Court Justice Andrew McDonald is under attack.” The image shifts to a picture of McDonald superimposed over a Hartford Courant headline saying that McDonald is the “target of homophobic smear.”
“You can stop this smear campaign now,” the announcer says. “Tell your state senator to confirm Andrew McDonald for chief justice.”
Fasano said the ad itself is a smear on Republicans, implying their opposition is based on McDonald’s sexual orientation, not his record. It is similar to robo calls from True Justice to constituents of various Republican senators.
“They should be embarrassed for what they are doing as lawyers. They are mischaracterizing everyone on purpose,” said Fasano, who is a lawyer.
True Justice is not the only group organizing support for McDonald. Members of the bar have defended McDonald’s refusal to recuse himself in the death penalty and Slossberg cases, writing op-ed pieces and letters. A gun-control group, Connecticut Against Gun Violence, urged its members in an email blast Wednesday to contact their lawmakers.
Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, who met this week with McDonald, said she has been contacted by constituents, including lawyers, supporting McDonald, using nearly identical emails, as well as some that were individually written. She also has been contacted by people in the judicial system opposed to the nomination.
“Clearly, there is an active marketing campaign on both sides, which makes it political,” Somers said.
Fasano said Republicans have legitimate concerns about whether McDonald should have recused himself from voting as a justice on a legal challenge to a portion of a death-penalty law that Malloy signed while McDonald was his counsel.
The law repealed the death penalty for future crimes, leaving in place the death sentences previously imposed on 11 men on death row. The Supreme Court set aside those sentences, rather than striking down the entire law as unconstitutional.
After a record-setting 12-hour examination of McDonald at a confirmation hearing by the legislature’s Judiciary Committee 10 days ago, a motion to recommend confirmation failed on a 20-20 vote, with 19 Republicans and one Democrat, Rep. Minnie Gonzalez of Hartford, opposing McDonald and 20 Democrats supporting him.
The tie vote placed his confirmation before the House and Senate with an unfavorable recommendation, requiring a two-step process in each chamber if McDonald is be confirmed.