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Keynote Address given by
Judge Barbara M. Quinn, Chief Court Administrator
New London County Bar Association’s
Liberty Bell Award Ceremony
May 2008
 
 
I am delighted to be here today to honor one of Connecticut’s finest superior court judges, the Honorable Susan B. Handy. I have known Susan for many years as she practiced law here in New London County. She became a Superior Court judge before I did and cheered me on in my efforts to join her on the Bench, when I was wondering whether I would ever manage to get there. And as you also know through the work that she does here in New London on the bench, she is bright, dedicated and tireless. Most important, Susan is passionate about the law and our courts and I can think of no better recipient for the award. And I know too that she is modest and has a difficult time listening to us talk like this. But please, Susan – let me continue a little longer.

Yesterday in courts around the state and here in New London, judges and lawyers held Law Day ceremonies focusing on this year’s law day theme: - the Rule of Law. And that brings me to the purpose of this luncheon. The rule of law embodies the basic principles of equal treatment of all people before the law. It embodies fairness, as well as constitutional and actual guarantees of basic human rights. Our constitution and the framers of that constitution saw a fair, transparent and effective judicial system as essential to the protection of citizens against the arbitrary use of state authority. And when we talk about those lofty principles, we are often hard pressed to think of concrete examples. We can look to other countries around the globe and easily identify where the rule of law is not operating and what the negative consequences are for the society that does not enjoy the benefits of the rule of law. But to point to a positive and concrete example here in our country can be more difficult. But right here, last year we did have such an example.

As many of you are aware, Judge Handy last year came under intense criticism for a decision she made regarding a sex offender who had served 24 years in prison and was scheduled to be released. He planned to live with his sister in a quiet neighborhood in Connecticut. The neighbors vigorously protested and contacted the Attorney General, the Governor and their legislators to stop the sex offender from moving into their neighborhood.

At that time, the Attorney General filed a motion on behalf of the Child Advocate asking that the sex offender continue to be held because there were children in the neighborhood and he posed a risk. But, Judge Handy made the only decision she could based upon the law- that the sex offender served his sentence and was entitled to be released.

Chris Powell, Managing Editor of the Journal Inquirer newspaper, said in a column, “… The justice system has succeeded, remarkably so in light of the pressure applied to it from the top of the government to induce it to rule by something other than the law at the expense of someone suddenly despised throughout the state. Judge Handy had reminded those applying the pressure that the law is no respecter of persons and that the Constitution forbids ex-post-facto laws. She could have quoted Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter’s droll observation that ‘the safeguards of liberty have been forged in controversies involving not very nice people.’”

I may be preaching to the choir, but the dynamics of the situation involving Judge Handy exemplify both the principles of our courts and the threats that they face. The concept -- that no one is above the law and that judges should be able to make decisions without fear of retribution or favor -- are the cornerstones of our democracy.

Let’s imagine if Judge Handy had not ruled as she did. A man who had completed his prison sentence and paid his debt to society would have been unjustly held. The neighbors and some politicians would have rejoiced, along with many members of the public. I would submit to you, however, that the damage to the constitutional rights of every member of the public would have been shaken to their core.
This is what happens when judges are guided by popular opinion and feel intimidated and unable to make the right decision under the rule of law. As you know, the law is not a popularity contest and sometimes it protects people who have committed loathsome acts. It also protects ordinary citizens who every day go to work, raise their families and pay their bills For the rule of law to work, it must apply equally to all.

Justice Anthony Kennedy once said: “The law makes a promise – neutrality. If the promise gets broken, the law as we know it ceases to exist.” As judges, we take an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and of the State of Connecticut, to the best of our ability. The oath includes that promise of neutrality. And each of us tries to make sure that we keep that promise in each matter we hear in court. And we are all here to honor and salute Judge Handy for doing so under trying and difficult circumstances. Thank you.
 

 

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