After a quarter century of unprecedented service in the state’s judicial system, Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Carmen Espinosa has downshifted by becoming a senior justice, a role which gives her the option to sit out a term. This option provides welcomed flexibility for the Puerto Rico-born judge after a legal career that spanned 41 years and included becoming the first Hispanic woman to sit not only on the state Supreme Court, but also to serve at the Superior Court and at the appellate level.
So far, the new status, has not changed Justice Espinosa’s responsibilities and powers. “Everything is pretty much the same and I am hearing all the cases this term,” she said. This means many hours reading briefs and other legal reference material as well as attending arguments before the court, including the high profile case regarding education funding in Connecticut.
This career milestone that Espinosa chose last summer, does not relate to seniority on the court, at least four current judges have served longer. Currently, the state Supreme has two senior justices. The other is Christine Vertefeuille, who was born in New Britain a couple years before Espinosa’s family migrated to the Hardware City. If both these women are out, the court has only six active justices rather than its normal contingent of seven, although five is enough to hear cases. Looking ahead, Governor Malloy recently nominated two justices to succeed Espinosa and Vertefeuille.
When Justice Espinosa does decide to skip a term, her destination is likely to be Orlando, Florida, where she has an aunt who recently found respite from Hurricane Maria’s destruction to the family’s Puerto Rico homeland, and also will find a sizable and growing Puerto Rican community. She may miss the Connecticut-produced sofrito that is not available in Orlando, but unlike her mother, who Espinosa said loved snow, the justice will have an opportunity to recuse herself from New England winters.
If Justice Espinosa ever finds time to write her memoirs, a task she currently dismisses, the overall theme might bear some semblance to an underlying motif who American novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder, who in “The Bridge at San Luis Reyes” and other literature pondered whether there is a direction in life beyond the individual’s own will.
In Justice Espinosa’s life story, there is not doubt that her interest and qualifications primarily carried her from growing up in one of New Britain’s first Puerto Rican families into teaching Spanish and French in Southington, passed several academic milestones and eventually into the courtroom. She was the one who earned high grades in school and as a federal prosecutor while displaying the judicial acumen that supported her historic advance through the state court system.
Looking back at her youth, Espinosa recalls that the groundwork for her interest in becoming an attorney and a litigator was actually laid more than 50 years ago when she was a big fan of two television shows, the courtroom drama “Perry Mason” (1957-1966) and “The FBI” (1965-74). “I thought I wanted to be a criminal trial lawyer,” she said. However, at that time, she recalled thinking that a law career was not attainable.
Yet, her career also was influenced by some unplanned events, which she refered to as “flukes” during a recent interview
For example, Justice Espinosa recalled a chance meeting with a friend in New Britain that inspired her to shift her career path from the academic profession toward law school. A resume placed indiscriminately in a basket in a law school placement office took her to a stint with with the the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and mistakingly contacting the wrong jurisdiction lead her to be hired by then U.S. Attorney Richard Blumenthal
Espinosa was the first of her family to attend college. Two older siblings had been told by high school guidance counselors that they were not college material.
Espinosa enrolled at Central Connecticut State University where she earned a bachelor’s degree in education in 1971 and was on her way to the classroom. She later gained a master’s degree from Brown University which offered her a fellowship to pursue a doctorate and she was thinking about becoming a college teacher.
Along the way, Espinosa said she began sensing that teaching may not be her best fit, although later in her career she would teach criminal law courses. However in 1973, she decided to take a friend’s advice and take a shot at law school. Espinosa was accepted to the University of Connecticut Law School, but wanting to get away chose to attend the George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C.
The first couple of years she was at law school was a fortuitous and unique period in American history for someone interested in the law to be in the nation’s capital. The Watergate scandal was gripping the nation’s attention and Espinosa got to hear some of the momentous legal arguments that lead to President Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
By 1976, Espinosa had completed her work for a juris doctor degree and ventured into the school’s placement office where an array of representing different employers were set up. Students were welcome to place their resumes in those jobs that interested them. “I put my resume in all of them,” Espinosa recalled.
It turned out that one of the potential employers was the Federal Bureau of Investigation. J. Edgar Hoover, who had built the agency with an iron fist and even made sure the television show “The FBI” cast the FBI positively, had died in 1972. He did not women in the bureau, Espinosa said, but four years later the door was more open.
Espinosa did not attend an FBI recruitment meeting but still received a call from the bureau, which was interested in hiring women, especially those like Espinosa who were lawyers and spoke Spanish.
Espinosa joined the FBI and she served three-and-half years in Newark, New Jersey and New York City, and worked on the notorious Lufthansa heist at Kennedy Airport, which become a central plot element in the movie “Goodfellas,”
Returning home to Connecticut, another one of those “flukes” impacted to future justice’s career. She said there was an advertisement for a prosecutor posted by the state attorney general’s office. “I made a mistake in reading it,” Espinosa said, and called the U.S. attorney for Connecticut’ office which just happened to also have an opening.
Espinosa worked in New Haven and then in Hartford where for eleven years she was an assistant U.S. attorney serving in both the criminal and civil divisions. She said that being a litigator for the U.S. attorney was one of her best jobs.
Another of what would be her favorite jobs came in early 1992 when she appointed a state Superior Court judge, a first for any Hispanic in Connecticut. She presided in courts in New Britain, Waterbury and Hartford. Looking back at that period she misses the interaction with people. “They are so diverse and so different,” she said.
In 2011, Espinosa was appointed by Governor Dannel Malloy to the Appellate Court, the first Hispanic to hold this position.
Two years later, Malloy made her the state’s first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice. She credits the governr with pursuing the objective of making the courts diverse, but appointing qualified minority judges.
Now that Justice Espinosa has the opportunity to take a senior break from her judicial duties in Hartford, she is likely to observe another judge, Aaron Judge, and other members of her favorite team, the New York Yankees, in their Florida spring training venue.
Justice Espinosa is not just a casual fan and was looking forward to the Yankees entry into the playoffs During a recent interview, she commented, “I really like the “Baby Bombers,” a reference to the young players such as Judge and Gary Sanchez, that are the New York’s team’s present and future.
Another reason sports holds a high place on the justice’s docket is that one of her daughters, she has three children, is a former all-state softball player and now is head coach at a college.
Puerto Rico and its current hurricane devastation are very much in her thoughts. Justice Espinosa has gone back to the island frequently to visit family. “I love it there, I love the food,” she said.
Being a Puerto Rican, Justice Espinosa said, is definitely among the elements that comprise who she is. “You are who you are,” she said, but added, “I don’t decide cases as a Puerto Rican, I am a justice who happens to be Puerto Rican.
However, there is one downside to her life in Orlando. Espinosa said she cannot find the sofrito that she enjoys using as a staple in cooking in Connecticut. The senior justice recalled that she grew up in a very Puerto Rican household and her mother made her own sofrito.
The future judge’s family came to Connecticut in the early 1950s which was not the “best time” for minorities. Her father ended up working in construction and her mother in a factory.
Eventually, the family got a place to live in a local housing project and for a time was the only non-black residents. Looking back now, she said, she has a sense that this was segregated housing. “Then, our focus was living from day to day,” she said.
Recently, Justice Espinosa was able to touch base with some women from the old neighborhood with whom she went to high school at a 50th reunion.
“We all did great,” Justice Espinosa said, in regard to successful careers. A “common thread,” she said, was strong families, even those with single parents, with education and church being the priorities.