As Connecticut works to strengthen and diversify its courts, the UConn School of Law hosted an event to explain how the state’s judges are selected, nominated and confirmed.
Dean Eboni S. Nelson moderated the panel discussion, “How to Become a Judge in State Court,” which was held in the Reading Room of William F. Starr Hall on Sept. 18, 2023. The offices of Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont and Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz joined the law school in sponsoring the panel discussion, which featured three judges and three officials with a role in choosing them.
“Diversifying the bench and having courts that look like Connecticut is a very important mission of mine and also of Gov. Lamont’s,” Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz told the audience. In the 1990s, when she was a state legislator sitting on the Judiciary Committee, classes of new judges would often be entirely white and male, she said.
Panelist Leander Dolphin, chair of the Judicial Selection Commission and managing partner of Shipman & Goodwin, said it’s important that candidates for the bench show clarity and expertise, but also humility and respect.
“As a sitting judge, your demeanor and your temperament and how you treat people who are not making decisions for you is really, really important,” she said. The commission keeps an eye out “for signs of what we call robe-itis,” she said, a kind of overconfidence in people who think they know everything and who may end up abusing their power.
Natalie Braswell ’07, general counsel in the governor’s office, said the governor looks for diversity in candidates that the office nominates, in terms of professional experience as well as race and gender. She said she wants to know whether candidates believe in justice and the rule of law. “What is your ‘why?’ That’s what I’m looking for.”
State Sen. Gary Winfield, co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, said he is shocked that some candidates can’t answer when asked to describe their concept of justice. Everyone who makes it to the committee is qualified, he said, so he is primarily concerned with whether they can empathize with defendants who are facing bad circumstances.
For those candidates who aren’t nominated on the first try, Dolphin recommended coming back in a few years with more experience, prepared to give a stronger interview. Braswell said circumstances also change, depending on who occupies the governor’s office and many other factors.
Judge Vikki Cooper said the process of becoming a judge was stressful from beginning to end, but she would recommend paying attention to details. She said she watched judiciary committee hearings in preparation and shared her personal story to distinguish herself from other judges in the application process.
Judge Emily Wagner ’06 said that the opportunity to become a judge is beyond an individual’s control, so it shouldn’t be a life goal. Wagner was a public defender for more than a decade and believes that she was nominated because the time came when the governor wanted the professional diversity and sensitivity she represented.
Judge Walter Menjivar ’12 said it’s critical for a candidate to be known as respectful to opposing counsel, who may have an opportunity to comment on the candidate’s character. The entire panel agreed that reputation matters, and a good reputation is critical to making it through the nomination and confirmation process.
“Your reputation speaks for itself, your involvement in the community, who you are as an attorney,” Braswell said. “What are we looking for? We’re looking for good lawyers.”