At a time when the Supreme Court of the United States is at its lowest level of popular support in at least 50 years—when it overturns long-standing precedents on abortion, affirmative action, and environmental regulations and divides a riven nation still further—it’s reassuring that a remarkably intelligent and ethical public servant can be named by a Democratic governor to a state supreme court, sail through its judiciary committee without drama or acrimony, and be overwhelmingly confirmed by the general assembly in less than a month.
The state is Connecticut, and the nominee is Nora Dannehy. If you haven’t heard of her, not only is that okay, it’s also intentional. The 62-year-old career prosecutor and Harvard Law School graduate has never been a showboat, even as she played a critical role in bringing down a corrupt governor, Republican John Rowland, back in 2005. In 2008, Dannehy was the first woman to be named U.S. attorney for Connecticut, and in 2019, she came to Washington with John Durham, the Trump-appointed U.S. attorney in Connecticut and the special counsel probing the origins of the Russian collusion investigation.
Durham’s investigation was a disaster. Once considered a respectable Republican prosecutor, Durham managed to lose the cases he brought to trial and uncovered nothing of substance that would undercut the original narrative that the FBI was right to investigate Trump’s 2016 campaign. Moreover, instead of avoiding politics—which is why special counsels get named in the first place—Durham and Attorney General Bill Barr, who appointed him, traveled together and constantly conferred while administration officials and the president cried that any Russia scrutiny was a witch hunt.
Dannehy resigned in protest but didn’t write a tell-all. Only last month, as her nomination to the state supreme court was being considered, did she speak out, in answer to a direct question about her sudden resignation. “I simply couldn’t be part of it. So I resigned,” she told Connecticut state legislators during her confirmation hearing. “In the spring and summer of 2020, I had growing concerns that this Russia investigation was not being conducted in [an objective and apolitical] way. Attorney General Barr began to speak more publicly and specifically about the ongoing criminal investigation. I thought these public comments violated DOJ guidelines.” All true, and an understatement, given the former attorney general’s conduct.
Dannehy’s common sense and restraint are in sharp contrast to that of the U.S. Supreme Court justices who accept lavish gifts from billionaire benefactors, also known as “dear friends,” and, like Justice Samuel Alito, give interviews to skewer their opponents and even other justices. It’s also a reminder that at a time when every Supreme Court justice save one (Elena Kagan) served as a federal judge, there’s a place on the bench for a career prosecutor who has led anything but a cloistered life.
Dannehy hails from a family of reformers. Her father was a highly respected lawyer and later jurist who became a state supreme court justice after serving on every other court in the Connecticut judicial system. The family lived in Willimantic, a blue-collar mill town where Nora went to public school. She did well enough to be admitted to Wellesley and, from there, to Harvard Law School. Her husband, Leonard Boyle, investigated corruption as the deputy chief state’s attorney and in 2021 became interim U.S. attorney. Her brother is a retired judge.
It was back in 2003 when Dannehy, then a federal prosecutor in Hartford, Connecticut, began angling for the biggest catch in the Nutmeg State: Governor John Rowland, a whale living far beyond his means. Rowland was a political wunderkind. In 1985, he became the nation’s youngest congressman at 27; in 1994, Connecticut’s youngest-ever governor at 37; and in 2001, chair of the Republican Governors Association—confirming his status as a GOP star who could win in the blue Northeast. But the golden boy was reading his press clippings and flying too close to the sun, taking expensive vacations ($90,000 in flights to Las Vegas and Florida), renovating his vacation home (adding cathedral ceilings and a hot tub), and pocketing rolls of cash from builders to whom he steered hundreds of millions of dollars in no-bid state contracts. Dannehy pulled his star from the sky.
In 2005, Rowland was convicted on political corruption charges and sentenced to one year and a day, and his downfall put Dannehy on the map. (It also helped cement the reputation of Dannehy’s boss Durham as an apolitical straight-shooter.) It was the flagship case in a convoy of prosecutions that, besides Rowland, brought down the chief of staff, the deputy chief of staff (who—shades of U.S. Senator Robert Menendez—buried gold coins in his backyard), a state treasurer, the mayors of Bridgeport and Waterbury, and some 20 others. Dannehy’s targets never saw her coming. Her gender and self-effacing manner proved potent weapons against male opponents who invariably underestimated her.
Dannehy built quite a record, but unlike Rudy Giuliani, and other prosecutors who do double duty as their own publicists, she never so much as took a bow. Braggadocio might have helped Dannehy in her interview for a judgeship after convicting Rowland. But she didn’t brag, and in a place as small as Connecticut, where politicians sympathize with other politicians and are chummy across party lines, Dannehy was passed over.
Although denied the family tradition of donning a black judicial robe, Dannehy was still the Woman to See, a DOJ careerist with admirers at “Main Justice” in Washington, D.C. In 2008, the department tapped her to lead a politically sensitive inquiry into whether President George W. Bush had wrongly dismissed nine U.S. attorneys. In less than two years—a world land-speed record in the annals of special counsels—Dannehy wrapped up her work by finding insufficient evidence of criminal conduct in the firings. In part because it was Dannehy, partisans on both sides accepted her conclusion.
In the insular world of Hartford, Bush, who had gotten wind of the governor’s troubles, was being pressed to name a Rowland pal as U.S. attorney. He didn’t get the nomination, and Bush appointed another Republican, Kevin O’Connor, who promised to recuse himself (and did). That meant that in 2003, Durham, whose career at Justice spanned nearly four decades, was the senior attorney in the office overseeing Dannehy’s prosecution of a governor from his own party. Even when Durham wasn’t her boss, he was her mentor, going back to 1991 when she joined the U.S. attorney’s office. That made her later resignation from the Russia investigation carry enormous personal weight.
All that history is one reason Durham turned to her in March 2019 to go to Washington with him to probe whether the first Russia investigation was a deep-state plot to sabotage Donald Trump. Durham had legitimate credentials. He’d won national recognition prosecuting the mobster Whitey Bulger’s infiltration of the Boston FBI office. Other aspects of Durham’s work got less recognition, such as when he was tapped to investigate the destruction of videotapes of CIA detainee interrogations in 2008 and, in a similar vein, in 2009, probed alleged criminality in so-called enhanced interrogations said to include waterboarding of suspected terrorists. Asking only for further investigation is at odds with the conclusion of other investigators, including the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The committee found that 119 detainees were held by the CIA, and 39 were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques that included sleep deprivation, prolonged standing, exposure to cold, and waterboarding. At least 26 of them were held “wrongfully.”
Finding nothing prosecutable in the enhanced interrogation program made Durham the Man to See when Barr, who had served in the CIA for four years, was looking for someone outside Washington to investigate the Robert Mueller investigation. This was an opportunity for Dannehy as well as Durham. He had always given Dannehy an open field, even when she prosecuted Republicans. For Dannehy’s part, she was happy to stay in the background and give Durham credit for operations she drove across the finish line. It was a perfect working relationship.
But this was the Trump administration, where reputations went to die. Almost as soon as Durham got to Washington in 2019, the bald-and-bearded prosecutor took off for Europe with the boss, Barr, from whom he was supposed to be independent, in search of anyone who could back up Trump’s claim that the FBI’s investigation was “the crime of the century.”
As weeks passed, the two septuagenarian Republicans found no one fitting that description but persisted as if the FBI, of all places, was brimming with Republican-hating rabble-rousers. Dannehy found herself riding shotgun, if not riding in the back seat, in an Edsel. Durham followed Barr protocols, not the department strictures that she’d observed during her Bush inquiry. Contrary to long-established department conventions, first Trump and then Barr, with Durham’s acquiescence, began talking up alleged findings. Dannehy asked Durham nicely to ask Barr to stop going on Fox News and hyping their findings. He didn’t. In the months before Election Day 2020, Barr even asked Durham to draft an interim report to be released early, which the team began doing without Dannehy’s knowledge. This made her furious and would have violated Justice Department guidelines.
The two old friends argued, but Durham was her boss, Barr was Durham’s, and Trump was Barr’s. After detailing her concerns and sending a brief farewell message to staff, Dannehy walked out the door. Three more prosecutors followed. She’d been there 11 months. Durham would stay another two and a half years, a belabored investigation that dwarfed the Watergate prosecutor’s tenure.
Dannehy completed both her prosecution of Rowland and her investigation of the Bush White House in under two years. In less than three years, Robert Mueller, who ran the inquiry Durham was seeking to discredit, produced seven guilty pleas, two convictions after trial, and several indictments of Russian nationals. Durham’s inquisition lasted nearly four years, during which he secured one guilty plea and lost the two cases that went to trial.
After walking away from the Durham investigation, Dannehy returned to Connecticut, where she became counsel to Democratic Governor Ned Lamont. In a reproach to politicians who pass over prosecutors who prosecute politicians, the governor nominated her for the state supreme court in September. Called to the podium at the press conference announcing her appointment, Dannehy was happy but unassuming. The Hartford Courant noted that she took less than 90 seconds to say thank you. She mentioned that she had attended Windham High School. She made no mention of Wellesley or Harvard.
Here we are, 20 years after Dannehy was passed over for a federal judgeship, and now she’s following her father to the state’s highest bench. All bets are that she’ll make a fine judge, which makes for a happy ending. But it isn’t the end of public corruption where sometimes the once-good guys are on the take. We shouldn’t forget the Durham inquiry. A once-good man lost his way and tried to take his loyal lieutenant with him at the bidding of the president and his submissive attorney general, who deployed the federal government as their private law firm to disprove the findings of a legitimate investigation they didn’t like.
There’s a lesson here for Washington. When it comes to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Beltway graybeards of both parties often overlook career prosecutors (like Earl Warren) and, for that matter, civil rights lawyers (Thurgood Marshall, Ruth Bader Ginsburg). One current exception is Barack Obama–appointed Justice Sonia Sotomayor—once the editor of the Yale Law Journal, often a path straight to chambers—who was recruited by Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. After six months, she was trying felonies, busting a child pornography ring, and serving as second chair in the 1982 trial of the “Tarzan” burglar, who swung on ropes to break and enter apartments in Harlem, murdering a total of three people. Alito was also a prosecutor (for the feds in New Jersey), which is a reminder that while putting criminals behind bars is a valuable experience, it’s not dispositive.
With its approval rating at record lows, the Supreme Court could use a few good prosecutors. The justices need only look to the legislature in Connecticut. They just overwhelmingly confirmed one of the best.