- Associated Press - Sunday, February 25, 2018

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - Critics and supporters of Connecticut chief justice nominee Andrew McDonald have been rallying their bases in advance of a legislative hearing on his confirmation.

The General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee is scheduled to question McDonald and hear testimony from the public Monday.

McDonald, 51, an associate justice of the state’s highest court since 2013, was nominated last month by Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. If confirmed by the full legislature, he would be the first openly gay chief justice of a state Supreme Court in the U.S. He would succeed retired former Chief Justice Chase Rogers.

Conservative groups have been urging constituents to tell lawmakers to reject McDonald, calling him an “activist” justice who has put his own liberal political views ahead of the law and has backed proposals later deemed unconstitutional.

McDonald supporters, including Malloy, Democratic lawmakers, law school deans and prominent lawyers, say he is a brilliant jurist.

“Despite dishonest political attacks from some, Justice McDonald has proven himself to be a fair-minded and thoughtful jurist throughout his five years on the Supreme Court,” Malloy spokesman Leigh Appleby said in a statement.

The nomination became an issue on the 2018 campaign trail. Republican candidate for governor Timothy Herbst has criticized McDonald for being partisan. Democratic state Rep. William Tong, who is exploring a run for attorney general, called Herbst’s comments bigoted, which Herbst denied.

Critics cite two cases in particular. One was unsuccessful legislation raised by the Judiciary Committee in 2009 that would have given lay members of Roman Catholic churches more control over parish finances. At the time, McDonald was a Democratic state senator from Stamford and co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Thousands of Roman Catholics rallied at the Capitol, calling the bill an unconstitutional attack on religious freedom. Then-state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, now a Democratic U.S. senator, said at the time the proposal could be unconstitutional.

McDonald, who declined to comment for this story, has said the bill, which was withdrawn, was raised because of concerns of parishioners at two churches where pastors embezzled money.

The second case was McDonald being part of the majority as the state Supreme Court issued a 4-3 ruling in 2015 that effectively abolished the state’s death penalty.

That case involved a law passed by the legislature and signed by Malloy in 2012, when McDonald was the governor’s legal counsel, that eliminated the death penalty, but only for future crimes. Malloy administration officials said McDonald had little to do with the bill.

McDonald and three other justices essentially said it wouldn’t be fair to execute the remaining 11 men on death row when the death penalty wouldn’t apply to future killers. As a state senator, McDonald supported a similar, failed death penalty repeal bill in 2009 that also would have applied only to future murders.

J.R. Romano, chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party, said it was troubling that McDonald supported legislation deemed unconstitutional.

The conservative Family Institute of Connecticut said in a statement that “the issue is that Andrew McDonald is a judicial activist who puts his personal views above the law and then imposes those views by judicial fiat.”

A host of McDonald supporters have issued statements praising him including prominent law firms, the Connecticut Bar Association and the law school deans at the University of Connecticut and Quinnipiac University.

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