By Wayne Jebian
After a largely genial hearing, the nomination of Appellate Court Judge Carmen E. Espinosa should sail comfortably through both chambers of the General Assembly later this month. The Judiciary Committee approved sending her nomination forward on a 40-0 vote.
During her hearing, Espinosa began her sworn testimony talking about her humble childhood in New Britain after being born in Puerto Rico and the milestone represented by her nomination to the State Supreme Court by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
If confirmed, Espinosa would become the only State Supreme Court Justice of Puerto Rican descent in all 50 states, she stated during her 12-minute introductory statement.
She will be one of just eight in the United States. According to research done by CTLatinoNews.com, the other Hispanic Supreme Court justices are in Colorado, Florida, Texas, Washington State and New Mexico, where three of the state’s five Supreme Court justices are Latino. A Hispanic Supreme Court justice in Oregon retired last month.
Particularly moving were passages in her opening statement about the struggles of her father, Alberto, after he moved from Puerto Rico to New Britain in 1952. “He worked 60 hours a week, outside in the yard, regardless of the weather,” she said. “He walked to work from our first apartment on Franklin Square because he did not have a car. In the winter, he often had to line his shoes with newspapers to keep his feet warm because he had no boots for the snow.” Espinosa herself, at the age of three, followed her father’s path to Connecticut along with her mother and two siblings.
Inspired by her parents’ work ethic, she paid her way through Southern and Central Connecticut State Colleges with a job at a grocery store, becoming the first person in her extended family to graduate from college. After earning a Master’s Degree in Hispanic Studies from Brown University, she taught seventh and eighth grade French and Spanish, until she was inspired, she told her audience, “by an African-American friend of mine who was applying to law school at the time.”
“Why not me?” Espinosa asked herself, a question whose larger meaning was clear: why should anyone, of any ethnicity or means, limit themselves in what they can hope to achieve? Quoting a fellow Latina and judge, United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, she said, “If you try, and be stubborn about trying, you can do what you set your mind to.”
She joined the FBI after law school and then became an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Connecticut. Throughout her career, leading up to this day, Espinosa advanced through a number of firsts: “In 1992, I was sworn in as the first Hispanic, and the first Hispanic female Superior Court judge in Connecticut. In 2001, I was appointed as the first Hispanic judge to sit on the Connecticut Appellate Court.”
Before the hearing, the Connecticut Hispanic Bar Association had issued a statement, part of which read: “We anticipate that the members of the state legislature from both parties will treat Judge Espinosa with the respect she deserves, examine her record and contributions to the legal community thoughtfully, and perform their duty by approving Judge’s Espinosa’s nomination without obstruction.”
Members of the Judiciary Committee echoed those words, beginning with the Senate committee co-chair Chair Eric Coleman (D-2), who called Espinosa, “a trailblazer and an inspiration.”
Ranking committee member Rosa Rebimbas (R-70) posed a couple of probing questions to Espinosa amidst the mostly flattering exchanges. An anonymous source had questioned her “temperament or work habits,” Rebimbas, an attorney in private practice, said to Espinosa. The judge answered, “To be an associate Supreme Court Justice is a very rare occurrence. There aren’t that many. There are only seven positions and they don’t become open very often. So it’s not surprising that some lawyers would be upset if their friends didn’t get the nod, if their family members didn’t get the nod. So recognizing that — that’s human nature.”
She then added, “However, I’ve been a judge for 21 years. There is a public record of my work. Every word that I have said is recorded. Every opinion that I ever wrote is in a book, so that anyone who wants to scrutinize my work ethic or temperament … there are facts out there that would support the fact that I am a hard worker and I have the proper temperament. Other than that, if anyone has anything specific that they’d like to bring up, I’d be happy to address it.”
Rebimbas also asked the judge if she had ever recused herself from a case, a question that elicited a response that took the hearing back to the streets of New Britain. Espinosa said that the one case where this had happened was when a physician was set to give testimony, and the judge recognized the witness as a former neighbor from the projects.
Latino members of the General Assembly who were present at the hearing included state Sen. Andres Ayala and state Reps. Angel Arce and Edwin Vargas. State Rep. Minnie Gonzalez (D-3), the Judiciary Committee’s sole Hispanic member, was unable to attend the confirmation hearing because she is recuperating from surgery. She said she expects to be available for the full House session on Feb. 6, when it is expected that a vote will be taken on Espinosa’s confirmation.