More Connecticut Judge Sleaze
He Asked Lawyers To Pay Off Campaign Debt; Claims Donations Won't Influence Him
By KIM MARTINEAU | Courant Staff Writer
January 7, 2008
MADISON — - A probate judge who hit up lawyers across the state for cash to help pay off his campaign debt is under investigation by the state probate administrator for possible ethics violations.
Phillip Zuckerman, a New London lawyer, was elected judge in 2006, after spending nearly $18,000 on his campaign. This past summer, Zuckerman's wife and campaign treasurer asked lawyers to donate up to $500 to help pay off their debt.
The fund-raising letters — some sent to lawyers who appear in Zuckerman's courtroom —raise questions about the independence of the Connecticut probate courts, where judges are elected and lawyers who do business in their courts often give generously to their campaigns.
"What's special here is this guy was so clumsy he left tracks," said John Langbein, a Yale Law School professor and frequent critic of the probate system. "Normally these shakedowns don't leave evidence of this quality."
Lawyers who were worried about retaliation if they chose not to give to Zuckerman complained to the state probate court administrator. Ronald Piombino, a Madison lawyer who often does trust and estate work in town, was one.
"Most of the attorneys I deal with on a daily basis also received this letter," he wrote in an August complaint. "As you can imagine, this letter has placed me in a difficult position."
Reached on Thursday at his law office, Zuckerman said he meant no offense. "If someone made a contribution it would not influence me in any way, shape or form in any case," he said. "It's my way of doing things to be completely fair and objective."
Judiciary rules bar probate judges from directly soliciting campaign cash when running for office. Zuckerman may have crossed the line by including a hand-written note on at least one request. "Your help would be appreciated!" he scrawled on a letter to Marianne Kilby, a lawyer in Essex, who forwarded it to the probate administrator in October.
The part-time hours and lucrative pay make judgeships in small, wealthy towns like Madison a coveted job. In 2005, the position paid $70,000, plus an estimated $12,000 in health benefits.
In his bid for probate judge, Zuckerman, a Democrat, ran against the Republican incumbent, Carol Lougee, a non-lawyer, on the promise to improve professionalism in the courts. Zuckerman won by less than 250 votes, after taking out a $10,000 loan to pay for signs, mailings and ads, according to campaign finance records. A year later, in appealing to lawyers for cash, his wife, Susan Murphy, invoked the importance of public service.
"Your contribution will go a long way in helping to erase our campaign debt," she wrote. "It will also do something else. It will help to preserve the ability of people like Phil Zuckerman who are not wealthy and who are not career politicians to run for office in our country. Please contribute and help us preserve that right!"
The letters, sent to friends, family and other lawyers, netted less than $500, said Zuckerman — the threshold that would trigger an updated filing with the names of contributors.
The two lawyers who complained showed "exemplary courage," said Langbein. "The reason lawyers don't complain about this kind of shakedown is that they fear retaliation when the lawyers go to conduct their probate matters before the judge," he said.
James Lawlor, the probate administrator, said he's looking into the complaints and may forward them to the Council on Probate Judicial Conduct. He promised to be aggressive in making sure that all probate judges comply with Connecticut's "high ethical standards."
Contact Kim Martineau at email@example.com
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