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Justice who led gay marriage, death penalty rulings retires

June 21, 2020 GMT
In this March 26, 2009 file photo, Connecticut state Supreme Court Justice Richard Palmer, center, questions attorneys at the Connecticut Supreme Court in Hartford, Conn. Palmer, who authored the landmark Connecticut Supreme Court rulings that legalized same-sex marriage and abolished the state's death penalty, is stepping down after 27 years on the high court. He reached the state's mandatory retirement age of 70 for judges late last month, but will continue to work on cases he heard before then. (AP Photo/Bob Child, Pool)
In this March 26, 2009 file photo, Connecticut state Supreme Court Justice Richard Palmer, center, questions attorneys at the Connecticut Supreme Court in Hartford, Conn. Palmer, who authored the landmark Connecticut Supreme Court rulings that legalized same-sex marriage and abolished the state's death penalty, is stepping down after 27 years on the high court. He reached the state's mandatory retirement age of 70 for judges late last month, but will continue to work on cases he heard before then. (AP Photo/Bob Child, Pool)

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — During his nearly 30 years on the Connecticut Supreme Court, Justice Richard Palmer’s views about the law and society changed with the times, leading him to write some of the court’s most consequential opinions in a generation.

He was the author for narrow 4-3 majorities in landmark cases that legalized same-sex marriage in 2008, abolished the death penalty in 2015, overturned Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel’s murder conviction in 2018 and allowed gun-maker Remington last year to be sued over how it marketed the rifle used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting.

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Palmer, a lifelong Democrat who was forced by state law to retire from the court late last month when he turned 70, recently reflected on his career.

“I do think that my views evolved over the almost three decades that I was a judge,” he said. “As time went on, I realized that times change. Circumstances change. We learn about the consequences of the opinions that we decided.”

Palmer took his seat on the state’s high court in 1993 after making friends with Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. on the tennis court. The state’s top prosecutor at the time, Palmer said Weicker, a left-leaning Republican elected as a third-party candidate, offered him a spot on the Supreme Court while playing tennis one day. Palmer at first thought Weicker was joking.

Wesley Horton, a prominent appellate attorney based in Hartford, said Palmer was very low-profile during his early years on the court, but that changed in 2001 when Palmer wrote a unanimous opinion saying the wealthy town of Greenwich’s longstanding policy barring nonresidents from local beaches was unconstitutional.

“In the past 15 or 20 years, he’s really turned into being a leader on the court,” Horton said. “He turned out to be a huge leader when he wrote the decision in the gay rights case in 2008.”

Before the 2008 ruling, Connecticut allowed civil unions that gave same-sex couples the same rights as married pairs. Palmer wrote the civil unions weren’t enough and created separate standards.

“We conclude that, in light of the history of pernicious discrimination faced by gay men and lesbians, and because the institution of marriage carries with it a status and significance that the newly created classification of civil unions does not embody, the segregation of heterosexual and homosexual couples into separate institutions constitutes a cognizable harm,” Palmer wrote.

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The decision, in a case titled Kerrigan versus Commissioner of Public Health, made Connecticut the third state, after Massachusetts and California, to legalize gay marriage. State legislators codified the ruling into state law the next year. Palmer’s opinion influenced other states’ gay marriage laws, said William Eskridge Jr, a professor at Yale Law School.

“Kerrigan was a major landmark in the lengthy campaign for marriage equality which began in the 1970s,” Eskridge said. “This is really a beacon to all of America, not just Connecticut.”

The 4-3 ruling in 2015 that abolished the state’s death penalty exposed a rare rift in the Supreme Court, as justices launched highly unusual criticism at each other in the majority and dissenting opinions.

The decision overturned a 2012 state law that eliminated the death penalty, but only for future capital crimes, meaning the 11 men on death row at the time would still be executed.

Palmer wrote that the death penalty “no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency and no longer serves any legitimate penological purpose.”

The chief justice at the time, Chase Rogers, joined Justices Peter Zarella and Carmen Espinosa in a dissent accusing the majority justices of tailoring their ruling based on personal beliefs, which Palmer denied.

Palmer also was the lead author in the 2018 decision that overturned Skakel’s murder conviction, a highly unusual ruling because it reversed a previous decision by the same court.

Skakel, a nephew of Ethel Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy’s widow, was convicted of murder in 2002 in the death of Martha Moxley in 1975 when they were teenagers in Greenwich. He was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison, but was freed after serving 11 years behind bars when a lower court overturned his murder conviction in 2013.

In a 4-3 ruling, the Supreme Court reinstated Skakel’s murder conviction in 2016, saying the lower court was wrong to dismiss the conviction based on mistakes by Skakel’s trial lawyer.

But after the ruling, Zarella, who wrote the majority opinion, left the court and Skakel’s lawyers asked justices to reconsider the decision. With new Justice Gregory D’Auria aboard, the court decided to reconsider and reversed the ruling.

State prosecutors have not announced whether they plan to retry Skakel.

The case against Remington Arms, which made the rifle used to kill 20 first graders and six educators at the Sandy Hook school in 2012, is in the pre-trial stage.

Palmer said he never feared backlash from his opinions.

“I think that was always my guiding principle, to try to figure out where the law took me and then to make sure that I was true to that decision,” he said. “If I ended up in the majority and even the author of some opinions that were controversial, for which there was going to be a strong public reaction one way or another, so be it.”

Over the next several months, Palmer will continue to work on Supreme Court cases that he heard before his retirement. He also wants to continue hearing cases on an occasional basis, either on the Appellate Court or as a part-time judge trial referee.

Palmer said serving on the Supreme Court was a high honor.

“I was really very fortunate to be able to participate in so many significant cases over the last 15 or 20 years,” he said. “My colleagues were always exceedingly respectful and helpful and supportive, but because these cases were controversial and closely divided, it was sometimes hard to maintain the majority. I was able to do it and I was very fortunate.”