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Connecticut Judges Faced 1,967 Complaints of Wrongdoing Since 2006

The complaints accused judges of showing bias, disregarding civil rights and engaging in personal misconduct. Yet state officials sided with the judges 98.5 percent of the time, dismissing the complaints.

Over the last 17 years, Connecticut's judicial watchdog has fielded nearly 2,000 complaints accusing judges of wrongdoing, including showing bias, disregarding civil rights and engaging in personal misconduct on and off the bench.

But in 98.5 percent of cases, state officials sided with judges, dismissing the complaints, and thereby cloaking in secrecy all details about those cases, including what was alleged, what state investigators did and why the matter was tossed.

Even eight cases in which judges were issued a written reprimand remain under wraps, a CT Insider investigation found.

Many criminal justice experts agree that a certain level of privacy is necessary to protect judges from frivolous and unfounded complaints, and indeed most states nationwide handle judicial misconduct cases with a similar level of confidentiality. But some experts said the mystery that shrouds judicial misconduct complaints in Connecticut and other states goes too far.

A more transparent process would mean greater accountability and a fairer judicial system, they said.

"Judges are public servants," said Chris Forsyth, executive director for the Judicial Integrity Project. "The discipline process should be public. We should all be concerned about what goes on behind closed doors."

Indeed, experts pointed out, Connecticut's process for resolving judicial misconduct allegations is far more secretive and affords judges greater privacy protections than defendants involved in the criminal and civil court cases they preside over.

Under state law, when the state Judicial Review Council dismisses a complaint, it never reveals, even to the parties involved, why it did so or what it did to investigate the claim. The agency is also barred by law from releasing records from dismissed cases, including the original complaint.

It also cannot disclose admonishments, or written reprimands, it issues to judges. Admonishments are handled behind closed doors and reflect a determination by the council that a judge acted improperly but did not violate the state's Judicial Code of Conduct.

The only time the agency's proceedings become public is when the council, after a private investigation and a closed-door probable cause hearing determines there were possible conduct violations and a claim is credible enough to warrant a public hearing.

The public hearing phase — a sort of trial by the JRC during which charges are adjudicated and judges can defend themselves — is public. And the rulings that result — censure of a judge or suspension from duty — are publicly released.

Of the 1,967 complaints logged between the 2006 and 2023 fiscal years, just 12 reached the probable cause stage and just nine made it to the public hearing stage, records show.

Six state judges were suspended for wrongdoing and three were censured; those cases included displaying improper behavior on and off the bench, withholding a decision for personal gain, facing DUI charges and failing to file tax returns, council records show.

All that secrecy is allowed under long-standing state law designed to protect judges.

"For the impartial and effective administration of justice ... it is desirable to establish appropriate mechanisms and procedures for the maintenance of judicial discipline, and the mere making of unpopular or erroneous decisions is not a ground for judicial discipline or for a finding of want of judicial integrity," state statute 51-51g notes.

Thomas Moukawsher, a former state judge who retired last month, said judges require special protection.

"Publicizing all complaints would help those trying to hobble our courts to connect with like-minded people in a kind of force-multiplier effect where several litigants might coordinate repeatedly attacking a judge using a shared false narrative," said Moukawsher, who also served as a state legislator from 1990 to 1992, when he lost a race to become a state senator. "It is not mere paranoia; it's happening. The former president of the United States is giving a master class on this right now."

Examples of judges disciplined include the late Family Support Magistrate Susan Baran, who in 2007 was given a 60-day suspension after the JRC found she failed to "respect and comply with the law and act in a manner promoting public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary" over her arrest for DUI and evading responsibility. Baran was fired from her magistrate job in February 2009, following her second drunken driving arrest. She passed away in 2021.

In 2018, now retired Judge George Levine, a tax trial referee, was censured twice for "undignified and discourteous behavior" while on the bench. A censure is a higher form of reprimand and issued when a violation of the state Judicial Code of Conduct is found.

Officials Defend Secretive Process

JRC statistics published in annual reports shed a bit of light on the nature of allegations received and how they were disposed.

Overall, 619 of the allegations against judges involved bias, partiality or discrimination; 376 an unfair or incorrect ruling; 344 involved a violation of rights; 298 the conduct of the judge; and 113 on abuse of power.

Other complaints were categorized as unethical behavior; incompetence; failure to take action; unprofessional conduct; conflict of interest; lack of fairness and rude or threatening behavior.

Altogether, of the 1,967 complaints alleging misconduct, 1,929 were thrown out while 17 resulted in some form of discipline. (Council officials said they did not have records that explain what happened with the 21 other complaints.)

Most dismissed cases, 1,628 of them, were thrown out following an internal investigation. Another 283 were dismissed because the complaint exceeded the one-year statute of limitations; seven complaints were withdrawn; five were dismissed after the judge died; three were dismissed due to retirement of the judge; two because the judge resigned; and one was deemed to be moot.

Kevin Dunn, the JRC executive director, defended the process and the secrecy required by state law.

"The way the statute is set up is probably the right way to do it," he said. "The whole nature of confidentiality would be violated if the meetings were public."

Dunn said he investigates each complaint received, which includes reviewing transcripts and presenting findings to the council for a decision over whether to proceed with a hearing.

"I'm impressed by this council," Dunn said. "They take it seriously."

The council consists of three judges, three attorneys and six members of the public. All are appointed by the governor and approved by the state Legislature.

Russell Wheeler, a visiting fellow with the Brookings Institution and former president of the Federal Judicial Center, said Connecticut's review process is typical.

"There is an initial investigation, and a decision is made to bring formal charges," Wheeler said. "At that point, most states make the complaint public."

But Wheeler said the "great majority" of complaints against judges are frivolous.

"You don't want to let judges get away with misconduct or disability," Wheeler said. "There is a balance here. Judges have to expect to be subjected to a degree of scrutiny. But you don't want a situation where someone is making wild accusations."

Wheeler added the judicial review process is "not a perfect system. You are balancing two competing values and I see your point; who is watching the watchdog? But on the other hand, you have to have some faith in these institutions. I'm more concerned about scaring good people away from being judges."

Dunn said there must be a violation of the judicial code for the council to take punitive action, adding that's why most complaints are dismissed.

"A lot of it comes down to what judges did and that can be appealed," Dunn, referring to a judge's decision. He said many complaints are the result of parties being unhappy over a ruling.

"There are times when judges do things and I might have acted differently, but it's a stylistic and personal choice," Dunn said. "There is no violation of the code. I think justice is being done by the council."

Punishment Examples

The types of misconduct judges were found to have committed varies from procedural violations to personal failings:

—Judge E. Curtissa Cofield was suspended for 240 days in 2009 over her actions after being arrested for DUI by Glastonbury police.

According to the JRC decision, Cofield during her arrest invoked her position as a judge to "influence and intimidate" officers, used "disparaging and demeaning" language in addressing officers and failed to act in a manner that "promotes public confidence."

Cofield was suspended for 30 days in 2013 after the JRC determined she failed to issue rulings in a "timely manner" in four cases involving 10 children who had been removed from their parents for abuse or neglect. The judge's inaction reportedly delayed adoption and permanent placement of the children, according to the JRC decision.

At the hearing, Judge Cofield admitted to "count one" of the complaint, which involved failing to issue rulings in a timely manner.

—Former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Sullivan in 2006 was suspended for 15 days after the JRC found he delayed a Supreme Court decision involving the controversial release of court records. The JRC concluded Sullivan withheld the decision to help influence the chance his colleague, Justice Peter Zarella, would succeed him as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Sullivan passed away in 2022 at the age of 83.

—Judge William Holden was suspended for 20 days in 2012 for taking too long to answer a motion from a man appealing his conviction for two sex-related felonies. "The Honorable William Holden's failure to answer in a timely manner ....constituted neglectful performance of the duties of a judge," the JRC concluded.

Judge Holden admitted he had "violated each of the three counts alleged in the charging document," according to the ruling.

—East Hartford Judge Kathleen McNamara in 2022 was censured for appearing in an internet commercial touting a successful surgery by Hartford Health Care for a severe curvature of the spine. The JRC determined the ad was a violation of rules which prohibits judges from using their office "to advance personal or economic interests." McNamara had reported her actions to the council for review.

Some Secrecy Warranted

State Rep. Steve Stafstrom, co-chairman of the judiciary committee, said a level of confidentiality is necessary.

"What we often find is complaints don't have a whole lot of merit to them," Stafstrom said. "Often, it's a litigant who doesn't like the decision by the judge and that is not misconduct. If you don't like the decision, your recourse is to take an appeal, not file a complaint about the judge's conduct."

Stafstrom said that while admonishments are not public the letters are sent to the judiciary committee and the documents, along with other material sent to the committee by the council, often come up during reappointment discussions. The committee can also access complaints against judges, he said.

"So, the information does get out there when it counts the most," Stafstrom said.

Moukawsher, the retired Connecticut judge, also said there are compelling reasons to leave Connecticut's review process as it is.

"I believe it would weaken our justice system to expose every frivolous complaint to publicity," Moukawsher said.

"My experience with complaints against me, and with complaints I knew about against other judges, convinced me that the low percentage is because the overwhelming number of complaints against judges are filed because the person filing the complaint disagrees with the judge's decision, not because the person has a genuine ethics complaint," Moukawsher said.

Moukawsher said the high rate of dismissals for complaints logged in Connecticut and elsewhere does not signal the processes are flawed.

"The small percentage of complaints that result in discipline does not suggest to me that judges are getting away with wrongdoing," said Moukawsher.

The JRC is empowered to investigate complaints against judges, workers compensation commissioners, family magistrates and administrative judges which allege misconduct, violations of the Judicial Code of Conduct or substance abuse. The council can also determine if a judge should be retired due to "permanent incapacity," which includes physical disability or mental illness.

Complaints against judges in recent years have risen — from 65 in 2019 to 102 in 2022. Still, those numbers are lower than complaints received between 2012 and 2016, when more than 120 complaints a year were received, a review of JRC records shows.

Critics Decry Closed-Door Approach

Forsyth said one of the problems with secrecy is it makes it impossible to determine if certain complaints should not have been dismissed or whether there is a worrisome pattern of complaints against a particular judge.

"What we are missing is patterns of conduct," Forsyth said. "We are missing patterns where judges might not be doing something horrendous but over time you would see they are behaving improperly. Every state is completely missing that component."

Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Courts which advocates for judicial reforms, said a more open process would better serve the public and the judicial system.

"You can protect privacy in certain instances, but transparency is important, and Connecticut is on the wrong side of that scale," he said.

Roth said complaints need to be taken more seriously and the public has a right to more information.

"You want a judiciary that takes seriously any level of misconduct and has a second level of accountability," Roth said. "If a judge took a free trip and was only admonished behind closed doors, there is no way to determine a pattern if they do it again."

Roth said the state's judiciary committee should direct the JRC to make admonishments public.

"Even without passing a new law, I would think the judiciary could give a little more guidance and move away from private admonishments," Roth said.

The results of probable cause hearings should also be available to the public, Roth said. "If it's a sensitive issue, you can put out a redacted transcript and have a conversation about whether things need to be redacted," he noted.

The National Landscape

Compared to other states, Connecticut's level of secrecy regarding judicial conduct investigations follows a standard path. For example, in 35 states — including Connecticut — public hearings to resolve complaints are open to the public, according to the National Center for State Courts.

Another 12 states are more secretive and do not make any part of the judicial discipline process public. The only way those results can be made public is if the judicial conduct commission recommends disclosure and the state Supreme Court agrees.

Previous analyses of available records show judges are rarely disciplined nationwide.

An NBC News review of judicial conduct commission data between 2016 and 2020 found thousands of complaints were filed each year but only about one percent of the allegations resulted in a judge being disciplined or forced to step down.

According to the center for state courts, about 138 state disciplinary proceedings were held in 2022 against judges across the country, resulting in six being removed from office, 27 resignations or retirements, 14 censures, 31 reprimands, 21 admonishments and six warnings.

Between 1980 and 2021, 462 judges out of an estimated 30,000 judges nationally were removed from office, the most severe punishment short of criminal charges, according to the center.

(c)2024 The Middletown Press, Conn. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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