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Chief Justice Chase T. RogersState of the Judiciary
Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers
April 13, 2011

Mister President, Mister Speaker, distinguished members of the House and Senate, my colleagues on the Supreme Court, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for allowing me this opportunity to address you today.

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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.

This year, 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 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.

The 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 Pro 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 started.

Among other 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 need.

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 Bar.

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.

And 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 staff.

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 rectify it.

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. 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 Foreclosure 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 state.

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 foreclosure crisis.

I 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 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. 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.

We make 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.

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