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State's Probate Court Administrator Submits Resignation
By CHRISTOPHER KEATING And KIM MARTINEAU | Courant Staff Writers
July 15, 2008
Probate court administrator James J. Lawlor, who has been locked in trench warfare with the state's small-town probate judges for years, has lost his battle.
He submitted his resignation Monday in a heavily detailed, five-page letter that outlined his attempts to reform the state's 117 probate courts, which have been targets of criticism for their cronyism and uneven performance.
Lawlor, 65, made numerous enemies among the elected judges because he tried to enact sweeping reforms that included more rigorous training for judges and staff, more financial auditing, additional oversight from the central office, and consolidation that could have cost some judges their jobs.
State officials who spoke on an agreement of anonymity said Lawlor had been forced out of his job, which pays nearly $150,000 a year. One state official who saw Lawlor over the weekend said, "He looked like he got punched in the gut."
Lawlor declined to discuss the details behind his departure. "I've always recognized the fact that I'm temporary," he said Monday. "It's not a permanent job."
Lawlor's sudden departure stunned legislators as word spread over the weekend and into Monday.
"He has been playing the honest broker, moving in the direction of reform," said state Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, the longtime co-chairman of the judiciary committee. "He was one of the guys trying to make changes. I thought he was doing a very good job."
In a highly independent and decentralized system, local probate judges worked for years with virtually no supervision. When James Lawlor, a former probate judge in Waterbury, tried to impose reforms from the central office during the past six years, the judges fought back.
Though most of the judges are lawyers, some in the small towns are not. There is also no requirement that the judges work full time — setting up a system in which big-city probate judges are lawyers who work long hours and small-town judges have other occupations and might only work a few hours a week.
Although the judiciary committee has passed some bills seeking reform, Rep. Lawlor said, "Each and every one has been like pulling teeth."
Judge Lawlor submitted his resignation, which is effective Oct. 1, to Chase T. Rogers, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court who oversees the administration of the entire judicial branch. Rogers declined to comment when reached at her home Monday night.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell's legal counsel, Anna Ficeto, said the governor's office "had no knowledge" of Lawlor's impending resignation until it called the judicial branch after a reporter's inquiry. "It came as a surprise to us," Ficeto said.
Joseph Secola, a Republican probate judge who represents Brookfield — Rell's hometown — has been a chief critic. For years, Secola has rallied a group of small-town probate judges to fight Lawlor's attempts at court consolidation.
Reached Monday, Secola expressed surprise — but little regret — about the judge's departure. "I'm looking forward to a fresh start," he said.
Meanwhile, New Haven Probate Judge Jack Keyes said, "I'm heartbroken. He was the best to work for."
A Waterbury Democrat, Lawlor ran for the U.S. Congress in the Fifth Congressional District in 1992 and lost in a three-way race against Republican Gary A. Franks and third-party candidate Lynn Taborsak. A social conservative, Lawlor had won the Democratic primary against Taborsak, then a liberal state legislator.
For more than a century, the probate system has sustained itself on fees charged to estates and to those who use the courts. But with a rise in health care costs and demands from cases involving children, the mentally ill and others who don't bring in much money, the system is expected to require outside funding within two years. A group of probate judges is currently meeting, at Lawlor's request, to come up with a plan for cutting costs. Even the small-town judges concede that financial pressure will force some of the state's 117 courts to close.
It is not clear who will be tapped to replace Lawlor. By law, it must be a sitting probate judge. Another question is whether the reforms he instituted will continue. Going forward, funding of the children's courts could be a problem. With the system running out of money, the state has stepped in to foot the bill.
"He's been vilified by some of my colleagues, but not by me," said Democrat Bob Killian, the longtime Hartford probate judge. "He's tackled things that no one dared to even think about, for years. That's not about to win you any Miss Congeniality awards."
Jeanne Milstein, the state's child advocate, said she hopes the children's courts survive.
"The focused expertise better assures appropriate and early intervention in each child's life," she said Monday. "I have seen too many children whose needs are not identified early, and, as a result, end up in the child welfare, juvenile justice and/or mental health systems."
Rep. Lawlor said he is looking for improvements in the future in the courts.
"It reminds me of the county sheriff system — something that was an anachronism and all these mini-scandals came up," Lawlor said. "It's certainly something that needs reform."
Contact Christopher Keating at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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