Connecticut State of the Judiciary: Access, efficient resolution of cases, fairness. “[S]ometimes fair and just decisions can also be very unpopular”

The National Center for State Courts has an archive of 2011, 2010, and previous years State of the Judiciary addresses located here.

On April 13, 2011 the Connecticut House and Senate resolved (S.J. 36) to meet in joint convention, and “That a committee of two Senators and two Representatives be appointed to invite the Honorable Chase T. Rogers, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, to attend the Joint Convention and to present to the Joint Convention any communication she might be pleased to make.” S.J. 37 directed “the remarks of the Chief Justice be printed in the journals of the Senate and House of Representatives and that a sufficient number of copies be printed for general distribution”

Later the same day Chief Justice Rogers did address the Joint Convention. Highlights of the Chief Justice’s speech (full text here) included:

I don’t have to tell you that we are all confronting the biggest deficit in our state’s history. The Judicial Branch is anything but immune from this crisis. In fact, for the past several years, as a partner with the Executive and Legislative Branches, we have shouldered our fair share of budget cuts and reductions.

Now, the budget is before you. Although we are hoping for the best, we also must prepare for the worst, and I will tell you that we are working on contingency plans to address whatever happens going forward. I feel it is important to let you know that, if there are ultimately more significant cuts or layoffs, the branch that we know today will look very different in the future. For example, the continuation of the initiatives that I highlight over the next several minutes may not be possible.

Regardless of the resources that are available, however, I can assure you that our commitment to three basic principles will remain intact. These principles are: Number one, access; Number two, the efficient resolution of cases; and Number three, fairness.

Starting with the first principle, we must provide access to everyone regardless of race, religion, age, sex, sexual preference, disability, marital status or national origin…While its charge is broad, a key area the Commission will address is one of our court system’s biggest challenges – providing access to self represented parties. If you aren’t aware of this troubling trend, the following numbers may surprise you. In 2010, an astounding 84 percent of all family cases and 27 percent of all civil cases had at least one party who was self-represented. The numbers are close to 90 percent in housing matters.
I am happy to say that we have taken great strides in making our courthouses easier to navigate. For example, by shifting resources we now have employees available in four of our busiest courthouses to greet and direct members of the public to where they need to go immediately upon entering the building. Since January 2010, this program has assisted over 8,000 court patrons. To further assist self represented parties, our court service centers and public information desks provide assistance in completing forms and also provide lawyers and others access to computers and fax machines, as well as other resources.

Of course, we could make all of these enhancements, but if a Judicial Branch employee is not helpful, then our efforts will be futile…Therefore, we are taking a hard look at how our Branch employees interact with the public. While the majority of our employees are professional and courteous, we know we can always do better.

In addition, we now have a team of employees who pose as members of the public and regularly visit our facilities to determine whether people are being treated professionally… As you can imagine, I was a little nervous about how this program would be received by staff. Interestingly, rather than resisting these efforts, the vast majority have welcomed the input they have received as a result of this program.

I would now like to turn to our second commitment – the timely and efficient resolution of cases. You should know that our courts are facing an increase in the number of cases filed. Over the past four years, we have seen an increase in the number of civil cases added to our dockets by 37 percent…I can’t tell you scientifically that these increases are due directly to the economy, but common sense tells us that it is certainly a significant factor.

Two years ago, a report was issued in Florida entitled “The Economic Impacts of Delays in Civil Trials in Florida’s State Courts Due to Under-Funding.” This report showed that a growing population and a growing foreclosure docket combined to create a civil case backlog. More important, it showed that this development severely affected Florida’s ability to create and keep jobs. This problem could become a reality in Connecticut and it is essential that we avoid a similar situation here.

To that end, one area of extensive review has been our Complex Litigation Docket…And to ensure that Connecticut has one of the strongest complex litigation dockets in the country, the Judicial Branch is committed to assigning judges with expertise in these matters to serve on the docket and to train all judges on issues relevant to commercial and business litigation.

We are also examining our court-sponsored Alternative Dispute Resolution programs that resolve civil matters short of trial and provide an off-ramp from full-blown litigation…We also plan to institute special land use dockets with dedicated judges and staff.

Through January of this year, over 9,400 homeowners have completed [the Foreclosure Mediation Program]. Of those, 79 percent reached a resolution and 64 percent were able to stay in their homes…The U.S. Department of Justice recently highlighted our program as a successful, results-based way to address the foreclosure crisis.

While jurors are absolutely essential to our system of government, it’s frustrating to receive a jury summons and to make the necessary arrangements only to find out the night before that your presence is not required…In response, we have been working hard to ensure the number of jurors summoned reflects the court’s actual need on any given day.

Now, I would like to turn your attention to the third commitment – fairness. Toward that goal, one of the most significant changes that has occurred has been at the appellate level.

Beginning with the 2009 term, the Supreme Court changed its longstanding policy regarding how it hears cases. Before that time, most cases were heard by panels of five of the seven justices. Now, the Court sits en banc in panels of all seven justices whenever possible. We believe this change enhances the confidence of the public in the rulings of our state’s highest court.

Finally, I want to talk for a moment about our superior court judges…A courthouse truly represents a microcosm of society’s problems and the public looks to our judges every day for resolution and justice. They do not have an easy task.

And, we know that sometimes fair and just decisions can also be very unpopular. Yet, the rule of law necessarily depends on independent courts where judges make decisions based on facts and law, not popular opinion.

Unfortunately, I am aware from speaking to my colleagues in other states of efforts to remove judges from office because a particular group disagrees with a ruling that is based on an interpretation of the law.

I am pleased to report that this is not the situation in Connecticut and I want to take this opportunity to thank you, on behalf of our state justices and judges, for your unwavering support.

The bottom line is that we need judges who are not afraid to do their job – which is to apply the law to the facts at hand, without fear or favor. The stakes in a democracy are that high…I hope that from just the few examples I have spoken of today, it is evident that the Branch is looking for every way possible to improve the state courts and, therefore, sustain the public’s confidence in our judiciary.

Connecticut Joint Judiciary Committee & Virginia’s Judicial Redistricting panel meet July 7

The Connecticut Joint Judiciary Committee will be holding a Public Hearing July 7 to focus on the state’s judiciary’s procurement code (agenda here), something required under a law passed in 2007 that revised the way the entire state government handled contracts (SB 1600, Special September Session). The legislature gave itself and the judicial branch until February 2011 to come up with their own procurement codes (Sec. 4e-12)

(a) On or before February 1, 2011, the judicial branch and the legislative branch shall each prepare a procurement code applicable to contracting expenditures, including, but not limited to, expenditures: (1) Involving contracting and procurement processes for purchasing or leasing of supplies, materials or equipment, consultant or consultant services, personal service agreements or purchase of service agreements; and (2) relating to contracts for the renovation, alteration or repair of any judicial branch or legislative branch facility in accordance with section 4b-1.

On that same day, the Virginia Supreme Court panel studying proposed new judicial circuits and districts will hold its first public comment session (h/t Virginia Lawyer’s Weekly), with additional hearings set for July 11, 13, 14, 18 and 21.

Connecticut bill would require state, in consultation with judicial branch, establish e-document standards and guidelines

Cross-posted to Court Technology Bulletin.

The question of standards for the authentication and storage of e-documents, in particular court documents, is getting more and more legislative attention. Connecticut’s HB 6600 of 2011 is a case in point.

Some background is in order. SB 501 of 2010 created a task force to study converting legislative documents from paper to electronic form. A similar but separate task force was created via HB 5435 of 2010 to study ways in which state agencies and departments could reduce or eliminate duplicative procedures and the amount of paper used and how, when practicable, technology can be employed to help in such reduction or elimination.

The judiciary testified before both task forces. Efforts to end transcription of legislative proceedings were opposed by the judiciary, as witnessed by the testimony of Deputy Chief Court Administrator Judge Patrick l. Carroll, III (page 79). Chief Court Administrator Judge Barbara M. Quinn submitted testimony to the state agency paper task force noting among other things the court’s use of e-filing and review of its business processes.

The resulting legislation, HB 6600, contains a litany of ways to avoid paper, such as reducing the number of copies of statutes that get distributed (the number going to the judiciary would decrease and probate courts would have to specifically request copies) and moving much of the legislative process online.

For the courts, another element of note is Section 28:

Not later than January 1, 2012, the State Librarian shall, in consultation with the Secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, the Commissioner of Administrative Services, the Chief Information Officer of the Department of Information Technology, the executive director of the Joint Committee on Legislative Management and the Chief Court Administrator of the judicial branch, establish standards and guidelines for the preservation and authentication of electronic documents. (emphasis added)

HB 6600 was approved by the Joint Government Administration and Elections Committee and is currently pending final action in the House and Senate.

You can adjudicate my case, but you can’t buy a beer: Legislative efforts to increase minimum ages for judges

Over the last several years, I’ve examine numerous efforts to increase or eliminate the mandatory retirement ages for judges. I have, however, paid less attention to the other end: minimum ages. Interestingly, most appellate courts do not have a minimum age to serve, however they do have minimum years of bar admission and/or active practice which would presumably get the person past the age of 21.

Many state trial courts, however, have relatively low minimum age requirements. In some cases this is offset by bar admission requirements. For example, to serve as an Alabama Municipal Court Judge one need only be a “qualified elector” (i.e. 18), but the same provision requires they “be licensed to practice law in this state” (Code of Ala. § 12-14-30). This would presumably get a person to at least 21 years of age, although there are rare exceptions. Virginia Pearcy reportedly became the youngest attorney in the US in 1998 after graduating from UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law at age 20.

21 is not always the magic number to serve as a judge, however. Arizona Justices of the Peace need only be 18 and  a qualified voter and resident; they do not have to be attorneys. Similarly, Connecticut Probate Judges appointed prior to 2011 need only be electors setting the minimum for that court as 18 as well (a 2010 law mandates new Probate Judges be attorneys).

In addition to Connecticut’s de facto increase in age requirement in 2010, Pennsylvania’s HB 917 of 2010 which would have increased the age threshold from 21 to 25 for magisterial judges only. Pennsylvania HB 998 of 2011 would raise the minimum age for all judges from 21 to 25.

Similarly, New York’s AB 10945 of 2010, reintroduced as AB 5674 of 2011, would increase the minimum age for service as a town or village justice from 18 to 25.