Let me get all the confessions out of the way first: Many years ago, I was an editorial writer for The Hartford Courant. After that, I hired and supervised a young trial lawyer named Dawne Westbrook in a law firm in which I was a partner. She is now a friend. And I have publicly supported her nomination as a judge. Enough disclosures. Let me now come to the point:
Westbrook should be confirmed to sit as a judge of the Superior Court of the State of Connecticut. Period.
The Hartford Courant called this into question this morning in a piece of journalism that looks, frankly, like muckraking for mere purpose of, well, raking muck.
Westbrook submitted her name as a candidate for a judge more than a year ago. She was vetted and approved for consideration. Then her name lingered, as do so many, in a netherworld. She needed political backing from someone to get her name before the governor. While she waited, she kept at the practice of law and engaged in public service.
In the fall of 2008, she was asked to serve on an entity known as the Citizen's Ethics Advisory Board, an unpaid position that polices the conduct of public officials. She turned up for her first meeting on September 25. She voted a couple of times to table matters, and she sat through an executive session of the group. Then a staff member on the board handed her state statutes governing the body. She noticed that it had a revolving door provision that prohibited employment by the state for one year after leaving the board.
After consultation with ethics gurus, she submitted a letter removing herself from the board a couple days after her first and only meeting. Her career on the committee lasted for about one meeting. She did not vote on any matters of substance.
A columnist at The Courant is now raising questions. Is this an illegal appointment? Why didn't Westbrook tell lawmakers she served for an afternoon on the ethics board? The suggestion is that either she or the governor's office has been careless in putting her name too soon before lawmakers as a potential judge.
This is sound and fury signifying little more than the need to fill a weekly column in a daily newspaper with something that looks like public service. In fact, it is a disservice to common sense.
A revolving door ethics policy is designed to assure that there are no conflicts of interest arising from joint loyalties and cross-cutting commitments. Westbrook's tarry on the ethics board was barely long enough to warm a seat. There is no danger of conflict or compromise.
Fortunately for Westbrook, the state's Attorney General's Office has already weighed in on a virtually identical case involving another judicial candidate. According to the the Attorney General, notwithstanding a provision in the law requiring that a candidate who once served on a board with a revolving door policy wait for appointment, the law does not carry a sanction or remedy. Thus, lawmakers are free to appoint Westbrook or not to appoint her.
I've known Westbrook for a decade. She is honest. She is smart. She is a woman of good judgment and integrity. She is exactly the sort of person we should want on the bench. Hijacking her candidacy on the basis of a journalist's reading of the law would be a sad, sad mistake.
In the case of The Hartford Courant and Dawne Westbrook, the paper's sound and fury signifies nothing. There is no conflict, and if there was a technical violation of the law, lawmakers are free to assess it for what it really is: a sign that the ethics board really ought to take better care to orient members about what they are, and are not, free to do.
This sideshow has no doubt been deeply embarrassing to Westbrook. It ought not to derail her judicial candidacy. An afternoon's service is hardly grounds for disqualification. Now, let me go change the kitty litter box. I've got just the newspaper to line it with.