A judicial confirmation hearing goes off script
A judicial confirmation hearing goes off script
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
The Malloy administration prepped Maureen M. Murphy for her judicial confirmation hearing Wednesday with questions about her sexual orientation and the pivotal role she played in the legalization of gay marriage in Connecticut.
But the legislature's Judiciary Committee endorsed her nomination to the Superior Court on a 31-9 vote without a single comment or question about her advocacy of gay rights or the landmark litigation that led to same-sex marriage.
Perhaps they were too distracted.
Controversy came from another quarter, unrelated to issues of sexual orientation or questions of judicial activism: Murphy was accused of bias in her court-appointed role as guardian in a bitter custody case won by the father of an 8-year-old boy.
The accusations came from Ada O. Shaw, a friend of the boy's mother, and Keith Harmon Snow, a self-described "independent war correspondent" and "genocide investigator" who says he is writing about the custody case. The testimony of a third witness, Michael Nowacki, who calls himself a "private attorney general," concluded with his arrest by Capitol police.
Murphy, 61, one of six lawyers nominated last month by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, sat with her wife, her 90-year-old mother and friends. By the end, she wore the expression of a theater patron who had wandered into the wrong show.
Her appearance before the committee began with Sen. John A. Kissel of Enfield, the ranking Republican, offering praise for an eclectic career.
"You strike me as a person with a lot of neat life experiences, a lot of dedication to those in need," Kissel said. "I think you'd be terrific on the bench -- a lot of wisdom, a lot of humility and a lot of compassion and a lot of smarts."
After college, Murphy was a programmer and research assistant at the Rand Corp. She volunteered with disabled children in New Mexico and in Connecticut, then received a master's degree in special education. She became a lawyer relatively late, at age 35.
Murphy worked for the attorney general's office, representing the state Department of Children and Families in special-education hearings and state universities in civil litigation. As a private lawyer, her practice included the representation of gay, lesbian and transgender clients in family and discrimination cases.
She was a founding member of Love Makes a Family, the gay rights group, and a member of the legal team that brought a lawsuit that yielded the state Supreme Court's 4-3 decision legalizing same-sex marriage in 2008.
In the past five years, Murphy took on more cases as a court-appointed guardian ad litem, a lawyer responsible for watching the child's interests in custody and other family law cases.
Custody cases are notorious for yielding complaints against judges by the losing party, said Kissel and Rep. Gerald Fox, D-Stamford, the co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Paul R. Doyle, D-Wethersfield, told Murphy that the committee was in receipt of letters from two people questioning her actions in a custody case, Doe vs. Roe.
One was from Shaw, the other from Eli Newberger, a pediatrician hired by the mother. Both complained that Murphy was hostile to the mother, deferential to the father and ignored evidence of physical and sexual abuse.
Murphy said she was limited in what she could say about the case. She acknowledged testifying, which she said happens in only about 5 percent of custody cases.
"If it gets to that point, there is usually one parent who is extremely unhappy," Murphy said. "And the more complicated the case, the more likely that one parent feels you have been wrong."
Murphy said her testimony was one element of the record on which a Superior Court judge made her custody decision.
In the telling of Shaw and Snow, the West Haven police, DCF, Murphy and a Superior Court judge all ignored evidence that the boy was being abused.
"Maureen Murphy did absolutely nothing," Shaw said.
"The mother has been accused of all kinds of psychological disorders," Snow testified, but he found her credible. "It's easy to tell who is telling the truth."
Shaw said she could not explain why the police took no action in the case, other than a referral to DCF. She said the only action by the child-protection agency was to accuse the mother of "educational neglect."
The third witness was Nowacki, whose grievances had less to do with Murphy than the Judiciary Committee's policies and the court system's approach to family law. He was arrested by Capitol police after refusing to surrender the microphone after his allotted time.
Nowacki, 58, of New Canaan was charged with interference with the General Assembly.
Legislators struggled with the testimony of Shaw and Snow, saying the witnesses seemed to be suggesting a conspiracy involving Murphy, the police, DCF and a judge.
Rep. John Hetherington of New Canaan, the ranking House Republican member of the committee, asked to delay a vote on Murphy's nomination to allow more time to examine the record. Without more time, he warned that some members would vote against confirmation.
"I've never voted no on a judicial nomination. It is not my desire to vote no on this nominee," he said.
Rep. Arthur J. O'Neill, R-Southbury, said if public hearings are to mean anything, the committee must look further into the allegations against Murphy.
The committee rejected a postponement, 21-16.
The full House of Representatives could vote on Murphy's confirmation as early as Thursday.