Will Connecticut Judges sue to work as little as possible?
By Keith M. Phaneuf, Journal Inquirer
For the past two years, judges and state legislators have worked to improve standards and professionalism in Connecticut's 300-year-old probate court system.
But a coalition of judges is threatening to sue the state over a new standard it claims is unfairly forcing probate courts - especially in small towns - to remain open at unnecessary times.
The Connecticut Probate Judges Association for Local Courts says a new standard issued this summer by Judge James J. Lawlor, the state's probate court administrator, improperly forces all courts to remain open at least four hours per day, Monday through Friday.
That had requirement had been spelled out in a bill approved this past spring by the legislature's Judiciary Committee.
But the final language adopted by the full House and Senate and signed into law but Gov. M. Jodi Rell said probate courts must be open a minimum of 20 hours per week.
And while that final language did not set a daily requirement, it did add that "the probate court administrator may, for good cause shown, modify the requirements."
Lawlor sent a memorandum to Connecticut probate judges on July 26 indicating that courts must be open at least four hours each weekday, but judges could seek a waiver from that standard if special circumstances arose.
Brookfield Probate Judge Joseph P. Secola, who is president of the roughly 40-member association, said Lawlor is ignoring legislative intent and is potentially forcing local courts to run an inefficient schedule.
For example, Secola said, some town halls in smaller communities - where probate courts often are located - aren't even open five days per week.
Lawlor's "position is not king," Secola added. "The judges aren't serfs that have to go to him on their knees to request a waiver from a standard that the law does not require."
The Brookfield judge added that his association is prepared to file a lawsuit unless the standard is reversed.
"I know why the final language was developed," Secola said. "The goal of the lawmakers was to give the local courts some flexibility within a 20-hour-per-week standard. Lawlor is acting as if his original language became law. This is causing chaos and confusion in mid-sized and smaller courts."
Lawlor couldn't be reached for comment, but in an Aug. 22 letter to Secola the probate court administrator defended his policy, arguing that state law does provide him with discretion for enforcing minimum court hours.
"I believe that we must encourage the courts to make their best efforts to respect the act," Lawlor wrote, noting that judges can request a waiver if the standard is especially troublesome for a community.
Sen. Andrew J. McDonald, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he believes Lawlor's actions do comply with the new statute, provided there is a waiver system to help courts that have a real problem being open four hours each weekday.
"Certainly the goal was to provide ready access on a regular basis to the public," McDonald said. "And ultimately the legislature conferred that discretion on the chief probate court administrator. "I do understand there can be circumstances where that's not practical for one reason for another."
The future direction of Connecticut's 300-year-old probate court system has been somewhat murky for the past two years.
Ever since studies raised concerns about waste, inefficiency, and professionalism, legislators have looked for options to enhance and preserve the community-based system.
Probate judges are elected to four-year terms by voters in the towns they serve. Besides helping families settle estates, probate courts make decisions about guardianships for the mentally ill or mentally retarded, whether to commit such patients, and about termination of parental rights.
Each court manages its own finances and is expected to be self-sustaining through fees charged for its services. Most revenue comes from settling estates. Each local probate court district also must pay a fee to support the state's Probate Administration Fund and to the office of the probate court administrator, which oversees the system.
©Journal Inquirer 2007