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Connecticut justices unusually critical of each other in rulings on death penalty, murder case

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HARTFORD, Connecticut — Two major rulings this year on the death penalty and a murder case yielded highly unusual criticism from Connecticut Supreme Court justices against their colleagues, reaching levels of acrimony that some legal experts say hasn't been seen since the 1990s.

The recent conflicting opinions shine a rare light on the people whose decisions have had wide-ranging effects on residents of the state, whether it was approving gay marriage, abolishing the death penalty or ruling Hartford schools needed to be desegregated.

"I think it does show a depth of passion," said Todd Fernow, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law. "You really know where these people are coming from. I think we all benefit by that. The last thing you want is a decision that is robotic and psychically distant from the issues of the day."

The court ruled 4-3 on Aug. 13 to abolish the death penalty for the 11 men on the state's death row, overturning a 2012 state law that eliminated the death penalty for future crimes only.

Chief Justice Chase Rogers wrote a dissenting opinion saying there was "no legitimate legal basis" for the majority's decision. She also joined Justices Peter Zarella and Carmen Espinosa in accusing the majority justices of tailoring their ruling based on personal beliefs.

"I can only conclude that the majority has improperly decided that the death penalty must be struck down because it offends the majority's subjective sense of morality," Rogers wrote.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Richard Palmer, took issue with Rogers' comments, accusing her of refusing "either to consider or to recognize the import of the words of our elected officials, the actions of our jurors and prosecutors, the story of our history, the path trodden by our sister states, and the overwhelming evidence that our society no longer considers the death penalty to be necessary or appropriate."

Justices Dennis Eveleigh and Andrew McDonald and now-retired Justice Flemming Norcott Jr. joined Palmer in the majority.

Espinosa used especially strong language in her dissents in the death penalty ruling and in a 4-2 decision in March that granted a new trial for Richard Lapointe, a brain-damaged man sentenced to life in prison for the 1987 killing of his wife's 88-year-old grandmother.

Espinosa wrote that the Lapointe decision was "unfettered judicial activism" and "a gross parody of judicial economy," and she accused the majority of being partial toward Lapointe.

"Justice is most certainly not attained by doffing one's judicial robe and donning an advocate's suit," Espinosa wrote.

The majority opinion, again written by Palmer, took Espinosa, who arrived on the court in 2013, to task.

"Rather than support her opinion with legal analysis and authority ... she chooses, for reasons we cannot fathom, to dress her argument in language so derisive that it is unbefitting an opinion of this state's highest court," Palmer wrote. "Justice Espinosa dishonors this court."

Fernow said he thought Espinoza's language has been particularly forceful.

"I think that Justice Espinosa has brought a more intense language in advancing her positions here and perhaps has been directly name-calling the people she disagrees with in ways that have led Justice Palmer and others to take umbrage at it," he said.

Palmer, Espinosa and Zarella declined to comment for this story.

Rogers said in a statement that despite the strong disagreements, the court is functioning well, as shown by its 134 decisions issued since last September.

"There is no question that some of the issues that we are called upon to decide are extremely challenging and it should not come as a surprise to anyone that on occasion we do not agree about the result in a case and strongly express our views in our opinions," she said.

Acrimonious and lively language is nothing new in the world of state and federal appeals courts. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is known for his colorful dissents.

Espinosa's dissents may be the most strongly worded on the Connecticut court since those of former Justice Robert Berdon, who retired in 1999 after eight years on the high court. Berdon accused fellow justices of paying lip service to racial discrimination in juries and issuing "cockamamie" opinions.

PHOTO: FILE - In this May 14, 2009 file photo, Chief Justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court Chase T. Rogers delivers her State of the Judiciary address before a joint session of the Connecticut General Assembly in the Hall of the House at the state Capitol in Hartford, Conn.  Two major rulings in 2015 on the death penalty and a murder case yielded highly unusual criticism from Connecticut Supreme Court justices against their colleagues, reaching levels of acrimony that some legal experts say hasn’t been seen since the 1990s.  The recent conflicting opinions shine a rare light on the people whose decisions have had wide-ranging effects on residents of the state, whether it was approving gay marriage, abolishing the death penalty or ruling Hartford schools needed to be desegregated.  (AP Photo/Bob Child)
FILE - In this May 14, 2009 file photo, Chief Justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court Chase T. Rogers delivers her State of the Judiciary address before a joint session of the Connecticut General Assembly in the Hall of the House at the state Capitol in Hartford, Conn. Two major rulings in 2015 on the death penalty and a murder case yielded highly unusual criticism from Connecticut Supreme Court justices against their colleagues, reaching levels of acrimony that some legal experts say hasn’t been seen since the 1990s. The recent conflicting opinions shine a rare light on the people whose decisions have had wide-ranging effects on residents of the state, whether it was approving gay marriage, abolishing the death penalty or ruling Hartford schools needed to be desegregated. (AP Photo/Bob Child)

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