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Judge Keller's Remarks at CBA Annual Meeting
on June 9th, 2008

Good afternoon, Chief Justice Rogers, President Prout, incoming President Barndollar, other distinguished officers of the bar association, and all the members of the bench and bar who have taken the time to be here at today’s luncheon.

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Judges' Corner

I am deeply honored and grateful to receive this award and to have my work favorably compared to the distinguished career of such an outstanding jurist as Judge Henry Naruk. Since I am still a few years away from retirement, I will endeavor to continue to serve in the manner for which you have graciously chosen to honor me. You have previously awarded this distinction to two of my mentors, Judge Frederica R. Brenneman and Judge John T. Downey, juvenile judges of long tenure who are still presiding, and I am proud to be included on the same roster as two such remarkable individuals. I want to focus my remarks today on the work of the juvenile courts, an area I knew little about before becoming a judge, but one which has come to define my sense of where judges and our courts can make a difference. 

But first, on a personal note, I often tell the kids who appear before me how fortunate they are to have a parents or other family members who are there for them. I was such a lucky child, and I owe so much to my parents, Hayden and Wanda Keller. I wish they could have been here, but I’m happy that many other family members and friends, are here to celebrate with me today. I want especially to thank my daughter, Jessica, my son, Matt, and my husband, Tom, for their love and making it easy for me to “have it all.”

As a former legal aid attorney, I am particularly pleased to be honored here today alongside Attorney Patricia Kaplan. I have the highest admiration for attorneys like her who have dedicated their entire careers to helping the most needy.

I first became the Chief Administrative Judge of the Juvenile Division in 1997, after three years on the bench because, as Judge Aaron Ment indicated, no one else wanted the job! After five busy years, I asked to be reassigned to the criminal, then civil divisions, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and subsequently served for two years as Administrative Judge for the J.D. of Hartford.

But Judge Brenneman told me when I left juvenile in 2002, “You’ll be back.” She was right. I missed it. Last year, Chief Justice Rogers called and asked me to resume the CAJ job. She said, “I want our juvenile courts to be the best in the country.” A challenge, but not an unachievable goal.

Most of you have never practiced in juvenile court. Because of the comparatively small courthouses, the staff and the members of the bar who frequently practice there become somewhat of a family. It’s hard to remain aloof. You see such human frailty and so many damaged children that you form a special bond and share a common mission–helping the kids. They are too numerous to mention individually, but I will especially thank the chief and deputy chief court administrators, judges, judge trial referees and magistrates with whom I have worked over the years, and all the staff of the various divisions in the judicial branch who work so hard to make Justice Rogers’ goal a reality. In fact, the staff deserves a great share of the credit for everything I’ve managed to accomplish.

My duties as Chief Administrative Judge prevent me from sitting on the bench as often as I would prefer, but I still manage to hear cases as I need to know what’s working, and what isn’t. Collaboration has become a big part of what I do. As you heard, I serve on a number of boards and commissions designed to address juvenile justice and child protection issues. Since this is a day when we celebrate the accomplishments of members of the Connecticut bar, I want to point out the tremendous contributions so many Connecticut lawyers make to improve policy and practice in juvenile court. There are the advocates at the Center for Children’s Advocacy, Voices for Children, the Juvenile Justice Alliance and the Office of the Child Advocate who tirelessly prod us into doing better. There are volunteer attorneys handling pro bono cases with Lawyers for Children America, mentoring kids, and serving as guardians-ad-litem for Children In Placement. There are many lawyer-legislators who have made reform in the juvenile area a focus of their work at the Capitol. Special contributions also come from the offices of the Chief Public Defender and the Chief State’s Attorney. I also greatly appreciate the willingness of the Commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, Attorney Susan Hamilton, and her staff attorneys, as well as the lawyers in the child protection unit at the Office of the Attorney General to work collaboratively on improving our child welfare system. Recently, lawyers from the Branch, many of these agencies and the juvenile bar worked with me on a task force to draft proposed revisions to the juvenile section of the Practice Book to the Rules Committee. It was hard, tedious work, but someone has to do it–and it should be us.

Finally, I want to pay special tribute to the case-handling attorneys in juvenile court--–the public defenders, the juvenile prosecutors, the assistant attorney generals and last, but not least, the private lawyers, most of whom contract–for $45.00 an hour-- to represent children and parents. All of them are the unsung heroes in the trenches who handle demanding and time-consuming caseloads. Representation in juvenile court is as much social work as it is lawyering, and in many instances, the outcomes are life-altering, often heartbreaking, infrequently tragic. It’s a tremendous responsibility and the emotionally and physically exhausting work takes its toll, yet these lawyers persevere. Just one example from the first trial I handled in juvenile: How many of you would know how to answer a six-year-old client, committed to DCF, already the subject of