LEGISLATORS SAVE STATE
FROM A BIGOTED BULLY
By CHRIS POWELL
Credit the General Assembly's Judiciary Committee with a great save -- saving Connecticut from promoting Superior Court Judge John R. Downey to the state Appellate Court.
The committee has often seemed too accommodating with the judiciary, against which the committee is supposed to play watchdog on the public's behalf. The overrepresentation of lawyer-legislators among the committee's membership, including lawyer-legislators who might like to become judges themselves someday, may encourage the committee to consider itself more part of the judicial branch of government than the legislative.
But not the other day.
While the rest of the General Assembly and much of the state were enjoying summer vacation, the Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, and Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, prepared for and held public hearings on recent judicial nominations by Governor Rell. And while the committee knows how to toss softballs to its favorites, with Judge Downey the committee was ready with tough questions, apparently having been alerted by offended litigants to some questionable proceedings in the judge's court.
Doubts were first raised about Downey because of a eulogy he gave in court in 2003 for South Carolina U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, for most of his life the snarling advocate of racial oppression. While Downey's speech had no place in court, everyone was ready to forgive it because, as a student at the University of South Carolina, he had been helped by Thurmond with a master's thesis and his eulogy praised the senator for dropping his racism late in his political career, and because Downey acknowledged that eulogizing Thurmond in court had been a mistake. How Thurmond's few months of tolerance of people with dark complexions could compensate for his decades of oppressing them was a question the Judiciary Committee did not have to pursue.
But then the committee cited cases in which Downey, from the judicial bench, speculated -- without any prompting, just on the basis of his recognizing Hispanic names -- that certain litigants might be illegal aliens, and in which he declared that only citizens could have access to the courts and particularly to his court.
Asked about this by the committee, Downey dissembled. In one instance, he said, he was just testing a lawyer. But the court transcripts showed a nasty judge injecting a grudge into his work so that he might lord it over people he disliked -- a bigoted bully.
Since their simple presence breaks the law, illegal aliens may get more sympathy in the United States than they deserve, and grudges against them can be valid. But at work judges must keep grudges to themselves, even as it is their job to know the law, which Downey didn't know here even as he was bullying people.
The judge's ignorance of the law can be attributed only to his bigotry. For it is taught even to college undergraduates, long before they apply to law school, that one of the great things about the country's charter, the Declaration of Independence, and its Constitution is their not limiting basic rights to citizens. Indeed, the Declaration and the Constitution practically invented human rights as a matter of law. That is, the Declaration says "all men are created equal," not "all citizens," and the Constitution continues in that direction, its Bill of Rights and 14th Amendment repeatedly extending liberties and protections to all people, not just all citizens. Connecticut's Constitution does the same.
The Judiciary Committee concluded its hearing on Downey's nomination without action, and the judge took the hint, or heeded the private advice that followed, withdrawing his candidacy via a letter to the governor. But his letter reflected continued arrogance. In regard to illegal aliens, Downey wrote: "My views on this issue have evolved. I would like to state unequivocally that it is my position that all people have the right to access our courts to seek redress for legal injury."
If the judge's "views" have "evolved," the law itself has not. It has been as it is in this respect since long before he became a judge.
Over the past year new leadership has been installed in Connecticut's judiciary, and it is striving to make the courts more accountable, open, welcoming, and respectful. Downey does not seem suited for such a court system, and when he is due for reappointment to the Superior Court in two years, the Judiciary Committee will have reason to be just as conscientious with him as it was the other day.
Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn.