The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved the Circuit Court nomination of a controversial judge assailed by Republicans for his "empathy" toward sex offenders and intervention in the high-profile case of a serial killer.
The panel voted 11-7 on party lines to send the nomination of Connecticut District Court Judge Robert Chatigny to the floor for a full Senate vote after a contentious meeting in which Republican members voiced concern that he was not fit to serve on the second-highest court in the country.
"He has elevated himself above the law," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
Chatigny is up for a nomination to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. He gained national attention in 2005 for delaying the scheduled execution of Michael Ross, also known as The Roadside Strangler, whom Chatigny had described as a victim of his own "sexual sadism."
The judge's conduct in that case, as well as his ruling in 2001 against sex offender registries created under Megan's Law, led some to question whether he showed a bias in favor of sex offenders.
"I find it absolutely impossible to support a candidate who has shown such disregard for victims of crime," Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said Thursday before the vote, calling Chatigny's "empathy" in the courtroom "misplaced."
Chatigny's April hearing had originally been postponed amid objections. Most of the complaints dealt with his conduct in the Ross case -- in early 2005, he pressured the defendant's attorney to challenge his execution even though Ross had said he did not want to fight.
The judge, on a conference call, raised concerns about whether Ross was mentally fit and whether prison isolation had led him to despair. At the time of the call, federal appeals courts had overturned two prior orders from Chatigny postponing the execution.
According to a transcript of that Jan. 28 call, the judge threatened to go after the law license of Ross' attorney, T.R. Paulding. The judge also repeatedly stuck up for Ross, saying he suffered from "this affliction, this terrible disease" and suggesting Ross "may be the least culpable, the least, of the people on death row."
Ross was convicted of killing four women and had confessed to killing eight, raping most of them. He was sentenced to death in 1987 and had been on death row for nearly two decades when Chatigny engaged in the last-minute battle with others on the case.
The execution, though temporarily delayed, was ultimately carried out.
Seven prosecutors from Connecticut filed a complaint against Chatigny with the Judicial Council of the Second Circuit, but the judge was cleared of misconduct.
Despite the criticism from Republicans on the committee, several prominent figures stuck up for the judge as the nomination process got more heated. Among them was Michael Mukasey, former attorney general in the George W. Bush administration.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., on Thursday defended Chatigny against the complaints. She said that during the Ross trial he raised the legitimate issue that "you have to be competent to waive your rights."
"Judge Chatigny had to make some very fast decisions on how to deal with this situation," she said, noting that the execution was the state's first in decades. "It was his job to make sure that it was done right."