Washington (CNSNews.com) – President Barack Obama’s controversial nominee to serve on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York fits the activist judiciary agenda of the administration, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said.
U.S. District Judge Robert Chatigny of Connecticut took what many considered extraordinary judicial actions in 2005 to prevent the execution of a serial killer, and the judge also has a record of lenient sentencing for sex offenders.
Nevertheless, the Senate Judiciary Committee, on a party-line vote, sent his nomination to the full Senate on Thursday. The committee vote was 11-7-1, with only Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, abstaining. All the Republicans voted against the nomination.
“This president clearly has a view of the judiciary that is contrary to the classical American understanding of the law,” Sessions, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, told CNSNews.com.
“He believes, he said repeatedly, that a judge should show empathy. That’s not what a judge is for,” Sessions said. “A judge is a servant of the law. They put on a robe to be dispassionate and apply the law as written.
“The president grew up as a community activist. He sees courts as part of a process by which political agendas can be advanced. So I’m not surprised that a number of the nominees that have been submitted by this president tend to be consistent with his view with the role of a judge,” Sessions added.
Most of the controversy stems from Chatigny’s role in the death penalty case of serial killer and rapist Michael Ross, who in January 2005 was slated to be the first person executed in Connecticut in more than four decades. That was before Chatigny intervened in an unusual way for a judge.
After Ross, who killed eight women ages 14-25, decided to drop all appeals and be executed, the state’s public defender office argued that he was not competent to make that decision – despite previous competency evaluations that showed he was capable.
Ross then fired his public defenders and hired a private attorney, T.R. Paulding, who had the unusual role of defending his client's right to be executed.
After the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in Ross’ favor to proceed with the execution, the public defender’s office brought its case to U.S. District Court, with Chatigny presiding. Chatigny ruled in favor of the public defenders’ argument that Ross had “death row syndrome,” which means the conditions on death row are so unpleasant it caused depression and made him want to die, thus he wasn’t capable of making a life or death decision on his own.
The case moved quickly to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned Chatigny’s decision and ruled in favor of executing Ross in January 2005. Before the high court even ruled, Chatigny spoke to Paulding, Ross’ attorney, in a conference call.
Judge Chatigny said Ross “never should have been convicted, or if convicted, he never should have been sentenced to death,” according to news accounts citing the transcript of the conference call. Chatigny went on to tell Ross’ lawyer, “You better be prepared to deal with me” and, “I’ll have your law license.”
After the call, Paulding asked to postpone the execution. The state of Connecticut had to comply, just as it would have if Ross had asked for an appeal.
After a six-day competency hearing, a state Superior Court judge ruled in April 2005 that Ross was competent to forgo his appeals. He was subsequently executed on May 2005.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said that should be the bottom line.
“All this ignores the fact that the man [Ross] was executed,” Leahy said during the hearing.
Seven state prosecutors filed an ethics complaint against Chatigny over the Ross case. But a Second Circuit court panel reviewed the matter and found no wrongdoing.
“It was considered by a panel of the Second Circuit, which determined his actions were not motivated by any bias for or against the death penalty,” Leahy said. “If the public is going to accept the death penalty, we’ve got to be able to make sure that the normal steps are taken.”
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) reminded Leahy that there was no doubt as to Ross’ guilt. Coburn spoke out firmly during the hearing about why he thought Chatigny was not fit to sit on the court of appeals.
“This judge demonstrated this case was about him and not about the victims or the defendant,” Coburn said.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said Chatigny took the necessary actions for a death penalty case.
“Judge Chatigny had to make some very fast decisions on how to deal with this situation,” Klobuchar said. “It was his job to make sure that it was done right.”
Chatigny is a former defense attorney who was nominated to the district judgeship by President Clinton in 1994.
During his 16-year tenure as the district judge, he has made a string of controversial decisions. He ruled as unconstitutional Connecticut’s Megan’s Law because it supposedly violates due process rights. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his ruling.
However, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed Chatigny’s ruling, siding with Connecticut to have a sex offender registry.