Judge Omar Williams – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut

Omar Williams, a judge for Connecticut’s Superior Court since 2016, has been nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut. Williams’ nomination fits the pattern of former public defenders being nominated for the bench by the Biden Administration.

Background

Omar A. Williams earned his B.A. from the University of Connecticut in 1998 and his J.D. from the University of Connecticut Law School in 2002. After graduating law school, Williams joined the State of Connecticut Division of Public Defender Services as an assistant public defender. In 2016, Gov. Dannel Malloy appointed Williams to be a judge on the New London District Superior Court, where he currently serves.

History of the Seat

Williams was nominated to a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut on October 15, 2019. The vacancy opened on August 31, 2018, with Judge Alvin Thompson’s move to senior status.

In March 2019, Judge Barbara Jongbloed, a Connecticut Superior Court Judge, was recommended by Connecticut Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy to the Trump Administration. Jongbloed was nominated by the Trump Administration to this seat on August 28, 2019, and was unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on November 21, 2019. However, Jongbloed’s nomination sat on the Senate floor from that point onwards and was left unconfirmed at the end of the Trump Administration, leaving the vacancy for the Biden Administration.

Legal Career

William’s primary experience before becoming a judge was as a state public defender, where he represented indigent defendants in trial and appellate courts. Among the notable cases he handled with the office, Williams challenged, under the Fourth Amendment, the police officers’ use of statements his client had made while calling a third-party cell phone in the possession of the police. See State v. Gonzalez, 898 A.2d 149 (Conn. 2006). Specifically, officers were interviewing a suspected drug dealer when his cellphone rang and officers answered. Officers proceeded to speak with the caller (defendant) and arranged to meet with him for a “resupply.” The defendant was subsequently captured and raised a Fourth Amendment challenge to the police use of a third-party cellphone. The Connecticut Supreme Court held unanimously that “because the defendant spoken voluntarily to police and made no effort to ascertain the identity of the person to whom he spoke, he lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy in his words spoken during his call.” As such, the Supreme Court rejected the Fourth Amendment challenge.

Jurisprudence

Williams has served as a Judge on the Connecticut Superior Court since 2016, when he was appointed by Gov. Dannel Malloy. In this role, Williams has served as a trial court judge, presiding over criminal, civil, family, and housing cases. Williams’ duties include making bail and detention decisions. For example, in one case, Williams set a $250,000 bond for a defendant who forced his way into a woman’s home and attempted to sexually assault the occupant. See Karen Florin, Police: Man Attempted Apology After Home Invasion, Sexual Assault in New London, The Day, Jan. 26, 2015.

Additionally, Williams is also charged with making legal rulings and sentencing defendants who have been found guilty. See, e.g., Claire Bessete, Zane Megos Sentenced to Five Years for Violating Probation, The Day, Feb. 26, 2016. In this role, Williams has not hesitated to impose probation and diversion as an alternative to incarceration. For example, Williams sentenced Dr. Micha Abeles, a 71-year-old doctor charged with stealing medication from the UConn Health Center, to one year of probation. Former UConn Doctor Caught Stealing Drugs Gets Probation, A.P. State & Local, Sept. 13, 2016. Williams also approved an accelerated rehabilitation program for 19-year-old Tyler McKenzie, charged with making an online threat promising “a hail of bullets” against East Lyme schools. See Karen Florin, Court Grants Diversionary Program in East Lyme School Threat Case, The Day, July 14, 2015.

One case that may draw controversy is that of Brianna Brochu, a white University of Hartford student charged with breach of the peace and criminal mischief for allegedly applying bodily fluids, including blood and saliva, on items owned by her roommate Chennel Rowe, who was African American. See Jay Colby, Brianna Brochu Charged With Harassing Former University of Hartford Roommate, Gets Probation, The Black Detour, Mar. 13, 2018, https://theblackdetour.com/brianna-brochu-roommate-gets-probation/. Against the request of the NAACP, state prosecutors declined to charge Brochu with a hate crime, and Williams sentenced her to an accelerated rehabilitation program, allowing the charges to be dismissed with completion of 200 hours of community service and a mental health evaluation, among other requirements. Despite the views of activist groups, and the acknowledgment of the pain the harassment had caused her, Rowe testified that she had no objection to the diversionary disposition of the case.

Additionally, Williams co-chaired a task force with former Connecticut Chief Justice Chase Rogers to reform jury selection in Connecticut and reduce racial bias. See Zach Murdock, Reforms Designed to Reduce Racial Bias in Trial Jury Selection Advance, Hartford Courant, Apr. 7, 2021. The Committee’s recommendations included permitting felons and non-citizens to serve on juries, raising the age at which seniors can opt out of jury service, and increasing compensation for jurors. The recommendations were subsequently approved by the Connecticut legislature.

Overall Assessment

With over two decades of legal experience as both an attorney and a judge, Williams is likely to be deemed qualified for the federal bench. However, opponents are likely to raise three primary issues in opposition to his nomination. First, they may point to Williams’ time as a public defender to criticize his “fitness” for the bench. Second, they may argue that Williams’ willingness to offer probation and diversion, including in the Brochu case, reflects a lack of attention to crime victims. Third, they may criticize Williams’ work in reforming jury service and selection in Connecticut. How successful such arguments are likely to be depends on if any of the Senate’s Democrats find them persuasive in opposing Williams’ nomination.

4 Comments

  1. Pingback: Where We Stand: Assessing Vacancies and Nominations in the Federal Judiciary – The Northeast | The Vetting Room

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