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May 22, 2024

Chief Justice Robinson’s pending retirement comes amid calls for more diverse backgrounds on Supreme Court

MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG Richard A. Robinson testifying at his confirmation hearing for chief justice in 2018.

Richard A. Robinson, the first Black chief justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court, is retiring in September after 24 years as a jurist at all levels of the state judiciary, including six as the leader of its highest court.

His departure from the seven-seat court comes at a time when Gov. Ned Lamont is being lobbied for more diverse backgrounds on a court where three of the six remaining justices are former prosecutors.

Lamont set no timetable for nominating a successor to the 66-year-old Robinson, who was general counsel of the Connecticut Conference of the NAACP and the assistant counsel for the city of Stamford before becoming a judge of the Superior Court in 2000.

Robinson informed the governor of his plans Monday in a face-to-face meeting. The governor’s office announced the retirement Tuesday.

“He is universally admired as a compassionate, thoughtful and skillful jurist,” Lamont said. “I’ve appreciated having him as a partner in state government, particularly during the challenging period at the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic when we worked to keep the critical functions of the courts operational.”

As chief justice, Robinson not only leads the Supreme Court but is responsible for making key assignments and overseeing the three-level state judiciary, which includes the Superior Court and the intermediate Appellate Court.

“It has been the highest honor and privilege to serve the State of Connecticut as a Superior Court judge, Appellate Court judge, justice of the Supreme Court, and as the state’s first Black chief justice of the Supreme Court,” Robinson said.

Robinson said he promised the legislature during his confirmation hearing he would do all he could to carry out the duties of the position, from his first day to the last.

“I believe that with the help, guidance and hard work of the justices, judges, employees, and stakeholders of the Judicial Branch, as well as our Executive Branch and Legislative Branch partners, we have fulfilled that promise,” he said.

Robinson was nominated to the Superior Court in 2000 by Gov. John G. Rowland, elevated to the Appellate Court in 2007 by Gov. M. Jodi Rell and to the Supreme Court in 2013 by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

Malloy nominated him as chief justice in April 2018, a week after his first choice, Associate Justice Andrew J. McDonald, failed to win confirmation on a 19-16 vote in a Senate that then had 18 Democrats and 18 Republicans. 

McDonald, formerly a state senator from Stamford and general counsel to Malloy, would have been the first openly gay chief justice of the highest court in any state. The GOP voted as a bloc against McDonald, joined by one conservative Democrat, Joan Hartley of Waterbury. Another, Gayle Slossberg of Milford, recused herself.

McDonald’s vote as an associate justice in a 4-3 opinion striking down the last vestiges of capital punishment in Connecticut was central to the GOP’s opposition. Some legislators also said McDonald should have recused himself, as he was on Malloy’s staff when the death penalty was repealed for future crimes. The high court’s decision vacated the death sentences of 11 men who remained on death row.

The legal profession rallied around McDonald, praising his intellectual acumen and warning that a vote against confirmation, if prompted by the legislature’s disagreement with an opinion, would undermine judicial independence.

Whether Lamont would consider McDonald, now the longest-serving associate justice, for chief justice was unclear. Democrats now have a 24-12 majority in the Senate, presumably offering a viable path to confirmation. McDonald was confirmed to a second eight-year term as an associate justice without controversy in 2021.

One of Lamont’s previous nominations to the Supreme Court was derailed last year. 

Sandra Slack Glover, a federal prosecutor, withdrew as the nominee to succeed Maria Araujo Kahn, who resigned to become a federal appellate judge. Glover was unable to overcome legislative questions about her commitment to upholding Connecticut’s strong reproductive rights laws and her lack of experience in state courts.

Robinson’s retirement will create the fourth vacancy on the Supreme Court since Lamont took office in January 2019. His previous successful nominees were Christine E. Keller, Joan K. Alexander and Nora R. Dannehy.

Keller, a trial and appellate judge for 27 years, succeeded Richard N. Palmer after he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 in 2020. She retired in 2022 and was succeeded by Alexander, a state prosecutor before she was nominated to the Superior Court in 2000. Lamont elevated her to the Appellate Court in 2020 and Supreme Court in 2022.

Dannehy, a former federal prosecutor and deputy state attorney general who had been Lamont’s general counsel, was easily confirmed for the vacancy that had been slated for Glover.

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