Friday, December 22, 2006

A Matter Of Justice

Students of politics know that every political issue has a foreground and a background. Political acts – which is to say, actions that affect the polis or state – occur within a context, and the context informs the action. The art of journalism involves a bringing forward of the background, so that discrete political acts will be understood by those affected; not only the principal players, the actors on the stage but, more importantly, the audience, the polis or state itself, which is affected by the actions of politicians.

The background surrounding the selection of a Chief Justice for Connecticut’s Supreme Court now threatens to swallow up the foreground. It is a very tangled web, involving principles of justice, the entire state Supreme Court – indeed, the entire court system in Connecticut – the state legislature, Governor Jodi Rell and the welfare of the citizens of Connecticut.

The foreground has been in view for some time. Everyone must be familiar by now with the well worn script: Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court William Sullivan, the only Republican on the court, is going to retire, and he wished to help a colleague, Justice Peter Zarella, get the appointment. Rell picked Zarella for the spot, and all hell broke loose – because Sullivan had delayed printing a decision that, he wrongly supposed, might have jeopardized the appointment.

One must suppose that the legislative committee charged with reviewing judicial appointments, though itself a creature of politics, is composed of honorable men and women capable of doing their duty; and their duty was to ratify the appointment of the best candidate for Chief Justice – who was, and is, Peter Zarella. Rell’s initial selection was a superb choice. By any measure, Zarella is a brilliant jurist, a strong and capable administrator and an honorable man.

Then along came Sullivan’s folly and, close in its wake, political opportunity, at which point the background rose up and swallowed the foreground; so that what we now have on stage is the usual witch’s brew of political chicanery, worldly ambition, tooth and claw politics and behavior unfitting human beings.

How to get back to square one?

Easy: You do the honorable thing.

For Rell, the honorable thing would be to re-nominate Zarella. The re-nomination necessarily would be attended by a political message; what political action is not? It is not necessary to ignore the political dimensions of the appointment. Connecticut’s Democrat dominated legislature and a weakened Republican Party in the state are waiting to see whether Rell, who so far has shown an agility in leaping over burning barricades, will be spooked by a judiciary committee that, having extracted a hundred pounds of flesh from Sullivan, may want a Supreme Court justice more to their liking.

The Connecticut Law Tribune’s Advisory Board, no novices in the matter of judicial appointments, recently weighed in with some sage advice.

“Governor Rell,” the committee advised, “should treat Justice Zarella fairly and resubmit his name since there is no evidence that he engaged in any wrongdoing or even knew what Justice Sullivan had done until after Justice Palmer reported Sullivan’s decision to place a hold on a Supreme Court ruling in which he and Zarella were in the majority.

“Gov. Rell undoubtedly was impressed by Justice Zarella’s record and his achievements, which are in no way diminished. There is little doubt hat he is one of the most able, articulate, and cerebral justices.”

Other judges, who need a strong hand at the administrative helm, are similarly impressed.

The honorable thing for the legislature would be to demonstrate that in punishing Sullivan – perhaps the most politically inept justice on the court – it has ably performed its duty. At this point, no other judge in consideration has been subjected to Zarella’s close examination, necessarily occasioned by Sullivan’s folly. If the legislature had found a log in Zarella’s eye, we should have heard about it by now.

The Law Tribune Advisory board concludes its commentary with this line: “Gov. Rell and the legislature should favorably consider Justice Zarella for the post of Chief Justice based on his qualifications and experience, and not let events in which he was only passively involved color the nomination.”

That is good advice that ought to be fairly received by fair minded men and women.

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