Associates say judge from Groton was well suited to take on school funding case

Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher. (CTMirror.org)
Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher. (CTMirror.org)

Three years into his career as a state judge, and just a few months after being assigned to a docket involving complex legal matters, Thomas G. Moukawsher of Groton presided over a lengthy and high-profile trial in a decade-old case involving the way Connecticut schools are funded.

Moukawsher's decision in Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding vs. Rell, which held that the current method of distributing education funds is unconstitutional and "irrational" and that aspects of Connecticut's public school system are broken, has gained national attention.

On Thursday, Attorney General George Jepsen announced his office would appeal the decision directly to the state Supreme Court and said Moukawsher had embarked on "an uncharted and legally unsupported path." 

Family members and several of Moukawsher's closest friends said in interviews last week that the judge, raised in a family committed to public service and the law, was well suited to take on the case and did so with passion.

"He was pleased to get such an important piece of law to decide," said his wife, Betsy Moukawsher, who is the Groton town clerk. "He hoped he could get enough information through the trial to make a decision."

Nominated to the bench by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in January 2013 and confirmed two months later, Moukawsher was assigned to the complex-litigation docket in Hartford Superior Court in September 2015, after stints in Danielson, New London and Norwich courtrooms.

In the school case, he quickly went to work on ruling on a flurry of pretrial motions, setting a trial date and surprising some observers when he issued strict orders about courtroom decorum, including attire.

Starting in January, Moukawsher, 54, listened to months of testimony in the school funding case, sometimes questioning the witnesses himself.

Two years ago, as a freshman judge assigned in New London Superior Court to a case involving the layoffs of firefighters in his hometown, he had conducted a hearing in a similar manner, directly questioning the fire chief from the bench.

Though it is not unheard of, many judges do not directly question witnesses during trials.

Within a month of final arguments in the school case, Moukawsher wrote a 90-page decision and, on Sept. 7, he read it from the bench in Hartford Superior Court, in an effort, some court observers said, to convey the importance and urgency of the subject matter.

The decision, sweeping in its condemnation of the constitutionality and politics of school funding and sharply critical of the state's education system — from special education to teacher evaluations and graduation rates — has garnered national attention in a country where 45 states have been involved in school finance litigation, according to Preston Green III, professor of education and the law at the University of Connecticut.

Connecticut's Code of Judicial Conduct prohibits judges from making public statements about pending cases and, since the ruling, Moukawsher has declined interview requests from media outlets, according to a judicial branch spokeswoman.

That hasn't stopped the media from parsing the decision, which some observers praised and others criticized, in newspaper columns and editorials and on radio shows.

Joins father's law firm

Moukawsher was born in New London and raised in Groton, graduating from St. Bernard High School. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from The Citadel and a law degree in 1986 from the University of Connecticut.

He served as a law clerk for Gov. William A. O'Neill and was working as a lobbyist for the banking industry and serving on the Groton Town Council in 1990 when he was elected, at age 28, as a state representative.

He met his future wife, Betsy, through Groton's Democratic Town Committee, when he was working for state Sen. John Larson.

In 1990, Betsy Moukawsher said, "Tom" — as he is known to his friends — asked her to manage his campaign for state representative for the 40th District.

He was elected and served one term.

At first, Betsy Moukawsher said, they were "friends in that sort of political way." Their friendship grew more personal in the early 1990s, and they were dating by 1995.

Today, they have a 15-year-old son, Alex, and live in Moukawsher's childhood home on Eastern Point, which they renovated.

Betsy Moukawsher also brought in three children, from her previous marriage to a Navy sailor, to the relationship. She and Moukawsher "shared parenting" of all four offspring, she said.

Recently, she said, her husband has taken up oil painting under the tutelage of artist Chris Zhang as a different means of relaxation and expression.

Though he sometimes works on legal cases at home, he always is accessible to the family, she said.

After one term as a state representative, Moukawsher ran for state Senate, losing to Cathy Cook. That was a good year for female candidates, Betsy Moukawsher said.

He then joined his father's law firm.

The late Joseph Moukawsher was a role model for public service and lawyering, according to the judge's close associates. The father was a longtime municipal attorney for Groton and was New London County's last coroner.

The judge's brother, Edward E. "Ted" Moukawsher, served as a state representative from 2002 to 2014 and also is an attorney.

The judge remains close friends with two of his University of Connecticut law school classmates, attorneys Michael Walsh and James T. "Tim" Shearin.

The three worked together on the school's law review, a prestigious publication put out by law school students who make the grade.

Walsh was Moukawsher's law partner for years at the firm of Moukawsher and Walsh, which he said he formed with Moukawsher and his father, who had established a practice decades earlier in 1996.

While Walsh worked out of a Harford office and specialized in personal injury law, Moukawsher worked in Groton and developed "from scratch" a practice in which he represented employees whose rights had been violated under the 1974 Employee Retirement Income Security Act, known as ERISA.

He handled cases involving the region's largest employers, Pfizer and Electric Boat, and later took on national cases and became one of the few experts in his field.

"He's really hardworking," Walsh said. "That's why you see a 90-page decision a month after the trial ends. He's one of the smartest attorneys — now judges — I know. ... if he think's he's doing what's right, he really is fearless."

Likes complex cases

Walsh, like others close to Moukawsher, is familiar with stories about the judge sending unjacketed lawyers out of the courtroom and otherwise insisting on courtroom formalities.

"He has his little idiosyncrasies," Walsh said. "He doesn't like people dressing a certain way who go in front of him. But if you go in front of him, you're going to get justice."

Moukawsher is in the prime of his career and could have continued practicing law, Walsh said, but for "all good reasons," he moved on to being a judge.

"He wanted to work hard and he wanted to make a difference," Walsh said. "He likes the complex, difficult cases."

Shearin, chairman of the Pullman & Conley law firm of Bridgeport, said he and Moukawsher became quick friends at UConn law school and roomed together during their third year in an apartment in the south end of Hartford.

Moukawsher is godfather of Shearin's son.

Shearin said the men always have supported each other, career-wise, as best friends will do, and that, as an attorney, Moukawsher was a "marquee player" in his field across the country, "literally one of the deans on a short list of people."

He always had a penchant for public service, having grown up with it "preached to him" by his father, so it was no surprise to Moukawsher's closest circle of friends when he became a judge, Shearin said.

As for the CCJEF school funding case, Shearin said that "like every other lawyer in the state," he has been reading about the case. But Shearin said he would not have asked, nor would Moukawsher have told him, any of the specifics of the case. Shearin said he did not want to give an opinion on the decision because his firm represents school districts "who are probably of a mixed view on the decision."

"I think everybody would agree, regardless of whether you like the decision or not, that it was a decision that has to lead to a discussion that has too long not occurred, not only in Connecticut, but in every state in this country," he said.

"People can come out different ways on the various viewpoints he expressed," he said, "but no one can take fault with respect to the issues he identified, which are worthy of discussion."

'A forceful push'

Some of the discussion around the school funding decision, and the appeal, will involve whether Moukawsher overstepped his bounds.

The judge gave Connecticut lawmakers six months to create a new funding system that applies "educationally-based principles to allocate funds in light of the special circumstances of the state's poorest communities."

"He says it is the legislature's job to come up with a scheme that is constitutional," said Green, the UConn professor. "He makes some suggestions, but he doesn't tell the legislature how to do it. This is in keeping with a number of cases throughout the country, where the court sees it as their job to say whether the funding system is constitutional but doesn't tell them how to do it."

In some ways, Moukawsher's decision is a reflection of a sentiment he expressed while running for state representative in 1990.

He told a reporter then that his main goal "would be to try and rejuvenate the state's economy and restore faith in the state and its government."

"The number one thing I'd like to work on is to restore the enthusiasm that made Connecticut the most prosperous state in the nation," he said at the time. "We also have to restore the credibility of government to efficiently manage state resources."

Lobbyist Jay B. Levin, a longtime associate of the judge, said Moukawsher is "extremely bright, very diligent and hardworking."

Levin believes the decision, which could lead to a return to regionalized education, was an important one for southeastern Connecticut, particularly cash-strapped Groton and New London.

In the decision, Moukawsher did an in-depth historical, economic and performance analysis of school funding, which Levin said would benefit from a review — and he predicts affirmation — by the state Supreme Court.

"You want to have a decision now where opponents say, 'Hey, this is just one guy,'" Levin said. "I think it makes sense that they send it back to (the Supreme Court, which has ruled on the matter in the past.) I'm assuming there could be a majority there to affirm, but I could be wrong."

He said the higher court could set up some mechanism to ensure school funding reform, such as appointing a special master to work with state agencies and lawmakers.

"The state needed a forceful push in the right direction," Levin said.

k.florin@theday.com

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