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
we worked with the new administration to reduce our already
austere budget request for the next fiscal year by the
substantial amount of $34 million. Frankly, it is as
large a reduction as we can absorb without affecting where
and how the courts operate.
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.
I can assure you that the
Judicial Branch takes its obligation to provide access to
justice very seriously. For this reason, we have established
an Access to Justice Commission to oversee and coordinate
all of the Branch’s efforts in this regard.
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
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.
Judicial Branch is concerned about this trend because we all
know that people are far better off when they have legal
representation. In addition, this trend impacts the
entire court system. Judges and staff must spend more
time going over basic procedures, which ultimately results
in delays. This is frustrating, not only to the self
represented party but also to the judges, staff, opposing
counsel and the other litigant.
In short, we must find ways to address this growing
challenge. The current situation is of even greater concern
when you consider that legal aid organizations are able to
meet only a small fraction of the legal needs of those who
cannot afford an attorney.
To address this problem, I have appointed a
Bono Committee that brings together members of the
bench, the private bar, the legal aid community and senior
in-house attorneys at some of our largest Connecticut-based
corporations. The goal of the committee is to increase
the number of attorneys willing to assist people who cannot
afford legal services. We believe that, while all
attorneys take seriously their obligations to provide pro
bono legal services, many do not know where or how to get
initiatives, the Pro Bono Committee plans to hold a summit
in September that, for the first time, will bring together
leaders of the bench, the bar and corporate communities.
The goal of the summit is to help every segment of our
diverse legal community easily identify the pro bono
opportunities that exist. This summit will provide these
attorneys with the tools and support necessary, including
training and insurance, to take on pro bono matters.
Based on the initial response, we are certain that this
undertaking will generate a significant dedication of time
and resources by our talented attorneys to assist those in
I should also note
that we already have two volunteer attorney programs up and
running in the area of family law. As of March 2011,
these experienced family practitioners had assisted more
than 650 self-represented parties. We hope to expand
the program to the New Haven foreclosure docket in May.
Aside from finding ways to
encourage attorneys to provide legal services to those who
cannot afford them, we are working to provide access to
justice at the front door, when your constituents enter any
state courthouse. What we have found is that many
people simply don’t know where to go. This makes a stressful
situation even more stressful.
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.
Additionally, advances in technology have played a key role
in enhancing these resources. Our website, for
example, is user friendly in English and Spanish and filled
with helpful information and links for the public and the
Of course, we could
make all of these enhancements, but if a Judicial Branch
employee is not helpful, then our efforts will be futile.
Anybody visiting our courthouses should not feel as if they
are entering a minefield of bureaucratic hostility.
This can be as simple as accepting a check with no home
address, as long as there is another form of identification.
Or, it could be taking the time to patiently and
respectfully listen to a member of the public painfully
recount a personal situation.
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.
we know from asking people who use our courts regularly that
they value integrity, fairness, respect and professionalism
in their interaction with Branch employees. To focus
on these values, a comprehensive employee training program,
called Pillars of Service Excellence, has been developed
in-house at no cost. Training has now begun for all of our
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. While we have
received overwhelmingly favorable feedback, in those
instances where there is a problem, we are moving quickly to
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. Most of this
increase is attributable to the increase in foreclosure and
contract collection cases. In addition, our family
docket has grown by 8 percent over the past four years and
there has been a small increase in criminal cases.
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. And this means, that more people
have turned to our state court system for resolution of
their disputes. In turn, the courts don’t have the
option of turning away people due to lack of resources.
To ensure that disputes are
resolved efficiently, we have been re-evaluating the
programs that we have in place, particularly in the area of
civil litigation. It is important to recognize that the
resolution of civil cases has serious implications, not only
for the parties, but for the state as a whole.
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.
This is an effective resource for handling some of our most
complicated civil cases involving, for instance, commercial
disputes or complex medical malpractice claims. The
regular civil trial dockets are currently not backlogged and
trial dates are readily available. Nonetheless, for
especially complicated cases, the litigants may choose to
apply to have their case transferred to the Complex
Litigation Docket, where they will benefit from the
oversight and management of a single judge.
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. To
further enhance the docket’s efficiency, and by again
shifting resources, each judge assigned to the docket has
recently been given access to a dedicated group of
experienced law clerks to assist with research.
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. The importance of this program
is that it can save considerable time and money for
individuals and businesses in Connecticut.
Yet another area that has a substantial impact on the state
is the process by which land is developed in Connecticut.
The courts play an integral role in overseeing disputes
involving such development. Over the past year, we have
worked diligently with members of the land use bar to
propose sweeping revisions to our court rules regarding
planning and zoning and other land use appeals.
We also plan to institute special land use dockets with
dedicated judges and staff. The impact of these
changes should be far-reaching and expedite the processing
of land-use appeals.
Another area of great concern is foreclosures. As you are
well aware, the number of foreclosure cases filed in the
courts has reached unprecedented levels. Fortunately,
for Connecticut, you had the foresight in 2008 to enact
legislation creating the
Mediation Program, which we administer.
Through January of this year, over 9,400 homeowners have
completed mediation. Of those, 79 percent reached a
resolution and 64 percent were able to stay in their homes.
These settlements obviously benefit not only the homeowner
but also lending institutions and communities throughout our
In fact, the
Connecticut program has been heralded as a national model.
The U.S. Department of Justice recently highlighted our
program as a successful, results-based way to address the
would also be remiss if I did not address jury service,
which is the most visible example of why our court system
must operate efficiently.
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. It is
also very disruptive to businesses and employers who are in
effect lending their workers to the state of Connecticut.
In response, we have been
working hard to ensure the number of jurors summoned
reflects the court’s actual need on any given day. As
a result of these efforts, the number of jurors actually
summoned has been reduced by over 10 percent, which
translates to more than 68,000 people not having to take
time from their lives and work to come to court.
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
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. They do not have an easy task. If you walk
into a courtroom on any given day, you may see a criminal
court judge sentencing a young adult whose recklessness
killed a friend. In the same building, you may see a
judge wrestling with a complicated medical malpractice suit.
Another judge in juvenile court may be dealing with a
terrible child abuse case in which neither parent appears
fit to raise their baby – who at six months is already the
victim of significant trauma.
A courthouse truly represents a microcosm of society’s
problems and the public looks to our judges every day for
resolution and justice.
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. These
decisions must be free from improper influence, which
includes political or special interests. Only this
ensures that all litigants are treated fairly and equally.
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.
difficult decisions every day, and we will continue to do
so, because that is the constitutional compact we have with
your constituencies – and ours.
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.
Thank you, again, for the
opportunity to address you this morning.