President Biden’s nomination of Sarah F. Russell to a federal judgeship in Connecticut is supported by her strong resume. Russell teaches law at Quinnipiac University and directs its legal clinic and used to teach at Yale. She is a former assistant federal public defender and was a clerk for two federal judges.
But three years ago Russell did something stupid, joining hundreds of politically correct and far-left individuals and groups as well as a few crazy ones in signing an open letter to Governor Lamont urging him to release nearly all criminals in Connecticut’s prisons and forbid any new imprisonments because prison is inherently unsafe and was being made more dangerous by the virus epidemic then underway. The letter was actually a long manifesto denouncing the criminal-justice system generally.
At a confirmation hearing two weeks ago Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee confronted Russell about the letter, which she had neglected to include among the background materials she had compiled for the committee. Russell apologized for omitting the letter but insisted she didn’t remember it and then tried clumsily to evade questions about how she could function properly as a judge if she really believed the assertions to which she had signed her name.
Pressed, Russell started to retreat from the letter, saying that as a judge she would follow the law.
Russell well may know better than the crazy stuff in the letter. She may have been induced to sign it by collegiality to the leftist academic cloister and may not have thought much about its substance. But thoughtlessly is not how anyone, much less a law professor, should behave when addressing the governor about policy, even as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was only too happy to take Russell’s letter seriously.
“Lots of people sign something kooky,” Cruz told her, “but lots of people haven’t been nominated to be a judge.”
To sustain her nomination in the narrowly divided and ferociously partisan Senate, Russell may have to start remembering the letter and declare that it no longer fully represents her views. But she signed it only three years ago, not 20 or 30, and it will remain what Cruz called it: “astonishing.”
Russell’s nomination is largely the doing of Connecticut’s U.S. senators, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, both Democrats, who, by tradition, privately assemble and review possible candidates for federal judgeships in the state and recommend their favorites to the president. While the senators might not have come across Russell’s letter even if they conducted their review in public, they usually focus on political ideology and opportunities for patronage. Russell’s leftist leanings and the gender integration she might bring to the judiciary would appeal strongly to the senators.
Of course the judicial nomination process is the same when Republican presidents and senators are in charge of it. Typically Republicans seek conservative nominees, as President Trump did, spectacularly pushing the Supreme Court and the rest of the federal judiciary to the right, sometimes nominating people even loonier than Russell’s letter makes her seem.
The ferocious partisanship in Congress, worsened by the narrow majorities, is not improving the staffing of the judiciary. But the process often has been uneven.
When, in 1970, President Richard Nixon nominated a formerly segregationist federal appellate judge, G. Harrold Carswell, to the Supreme Court, the nominee was scorned as “mediocre.” Whereupon Sen. Roman L. Hruska, R-Nebraska, rose to Carswell’s defense. “Even if he were mediocre,” Hruska said, “there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance? We can’t have all Brandeises, Frankfurters, and Cardozos.”
Hruska was ridiculed for asserting mediocrity’s entitlement to representation, but as a practical matter he was right, as Russell’s confirmation may show. Few judges will be brilliant all the time, and some may not even be very smart, just politically correct, left or right. With luck Russell at least will notice eventually that Connecticut is being ravaged by repeat offenders, people who never should have been released from prison, and that her letter to the governor didn’t help.
Chris Powell has written about Connecticut government and politics for many years. (CPowell@cox.net)