Connecticut's Probate Court Reform: Some Say There's A Lot More To Do
By JOSEPH A. O'BRIEN Special to The Courant
September 27, 2009
A lack of formal education in the law never stopped anyone from running for judge of probate in Connecticut — until now.
Under the probate court reform and consolidation legislation approved by the General Assembly this past week, the number of probate courts in the state will be reduced from 117 to 54. And, as of Jan. 5, 2011, those seeking election to a probate judgeship must be a lawyer and a member of the Connecticut bar.
"It's a historic day in the state of Connecticut," state Sen. Paul Doyle, D-Wethersfield, said Thursday, when the Senate adopted the measure 33-2 and sent it to Gov. M. Jodi Rell for her signature. The House had approved its final version of the new law Wednesday.
Connecticut's probate court system has been politically immune to significant change since 1850, the first year judges of probate were chosen by voters. Probate judges are the only judges in Connecticut still elected to office and whose candidacies are determined at the local level. Judges of Connecticut's Superior, Appellate and Supreme courts are nominated by the governor and approved by the legislature.
The present reform effort was thrust upon Democratic and Republican leaders because of the growing fiscal crisis in the probate court system, which has operated at a deficit since fiscal 2004-05. The system is projected to end this fiscal year $4.1 million in the red.
"With all due respect to the historic and fundamental role of probate courts in Connecticut, it became readily apparent in recent years that the system could not continue unaltered," Doyle said. "First of all, its financial underpinnings were unsustainable, and secondly, our increasingly complicated culture demands a more sophisticated approach to the resolution of traditional probate matters."
Under the new law, probate judges — who will be required to work an average of only 20 hours a week although the courts will be open 40 hours — will earn an annual salary between $66,051 and $110,085. The actual amount will be determined by the probate district's population and estimated work load.
Although the reform measure stirred little opposition in either chamber, some feel the law stops short of the most significant changes necessary.
Thompson Probate Judge Kathleen J. Murphy, a member of the probate redistricting commission led by state Rep. Robert D. Godfrey, questioned provisions that would allow most probate judges after the 2010 election to collect the maximum $110,085 salary, plus insurance and benefits, while being required to work an average of 20 hours a week. Murphy said that provision is inconsistent with rules that require state employees to work a minimum of 20 hours a week in order to receive health insurance.
Under the new law, probate judges will be allowed to continue working in a private law practice. All other Connecticut judges are prohibited from having a law practice, Murphy said, and must work 40 hours a week.
Murphy recommended that probate judges be barred from private practice and that they be required to work 40 hours.
Although the new law reduces the number of courts, it allows for the appointment of probate magistrate judges, a new position that will pay $50 an hour, to handle any overbooked probate dockets, Murphy said. Judges who lose their courts in the consolidation could conceivably be named a magistrate, she said.
Yale law Professor John H. Langbein, who has testified before the state legislature about the need for probate reform, said the legislation falls well short of meaningful reform.
Langbein said state lawmakers are politically unwilling to adopt the reforms needed in Connecticut's probate courts. Langbein has previously recommended that Connecticut follow the lead of other states and bar probate judges from practicing law.
"This just smells of favoritism," Langbein said. "To allow a judge to maintain a private practice of law is to invite a serious structural conflict of interest."
"This is astonishing. Connecticut probably has the finest state court system in the country," Langbein said. "The judges are high caliber. The system is merit based. They have excellent people. No scandals." It's "as good a system" as anywhere in the country, he said.
But the state's probate system is "one of the very worst systems in the country," Langbein said.
Conflicts of interest are rampant in Connecticut's probate courts, he said. "Private lawyers who know what's wrong are largely silent" because they fear that antagonizing a judge could adversely affect their practice.
Langbein said the new law is "the minimum they can get away with" in light of deficits. "They are trying to keep as much of this corrupt system as they can," Langbein said.
There are also those in the General Assembly who are not happy with the legislation.
Sen. Andrew Roraback tried unsuccessfully last week to force the creation of a 55th probate district by carving Torrington and Goshen out of their proposed district, which will also include Winchester, New Hartford, Colebrook, Hartland and Barkhamsted.
Roraback took exception to Langbein's assessment of Connecticut's probate system.
"That's an overstatement and an affront to the hundreds of honest and decent people" working within the probate system, Roraback said.
Connecticut probate "is an evolving system," Roraback said.
"We're likely going to take a deep breath," he said. "It will take a couple of years to digest this."
Murphy said she believes public awareness regarding probate issues needs to be raised.
"The more light that shines on the issue, the better," Murphy said. "It needs to happen for the probate court system; it needs to happen for the people of Connecticut."
Vincent Russo, legislative liaison for probate court Administrator Paul J. Knierim — whose office helped the legislature make the changes necessary to keep the probate court system solvent — said more improvements are planned, but not at the level of those just adopted into law. For example, the 54 new court districts have yet to be named, and the staffing and equipment needs, not to mention the locations, are as yet undecided.
The state office of fiscal analysis estimates the savings to the probate court administration fund resulting from the changes to be $4 million in fiscal 2011 and nearly $8 million annually thereafter.
In June, the legislature approved spending $5 million this year and $11.25 million next year from the general fund to keep the probate courts solvent pending consolidation. The amount each town is required to spend in support of probate court services should decrease because they will be drawn from a larger pool.Comments so far:
Move the ct probate courts to the ct superior. Close down the office of the probate court administrator that alone will save the state over $4,000,000. The probate court administrator%u2019s office is useless. Judge Knierim makes over 150,000 per year plus perks and he calls this reform, Shame on you Judge. Quote from Judge Knierim "My charge is to find common ground and build consensus among all who will be affected,'' Knierim said. http://blogs.courant.com/rick_green/2008/08/give-simsbury-probate-judge-pa.html It appears that all who will be affected are the probate judges, looks like Judge Knierim does not believe the people of Connecticut are part of all %u201Cwho will be affected%u201D Maybe it%u2019s time for Judge Knierim to head back to Simsbury and run that probate court full time, He is way over his head in this job.
This quote is from the Probate court administrator Judge Paul Knierim %u201CThe probate system is a crucial safety net for Connecticut families,%u201D said Judge Knierim. %u201CThey count on its services during some of the most stressful moments of their lives. We must not let them down.%u201D http://www.ctprobatejudges.org/article4.html. Well Judge,you have let a lot of families down under your watch as probate court administrator. You have a probate judge working under you that has been sited for violating professional conduct by the State Wide Grievance Committee, You have other Probate Judges that just simply do not know the law or totally disregard it. But then again the probate court administrator%u2019s office runs just the same as the probate courts do, wrong answers, unreturned calls and so on. Judge Knierim what you should have done was lead by example but then again I guess you did, you are a probate judge. The Judges that I speak of that don%u2019t know the probate laws are attorneys, so you can%u2019t blame that one on the non attorney probate judges.
lookingout4U (09/27/2009, 11:19 AM )