Joette Katz and Cogito Incognitus

I spent some of the unhappiest years of my life pretending to be something I was not: You see, I was a member of an editorial board. I earned my living writing daily opinions about all matters far and wide. The opinions appeared under the masthead of the Waterbury newspapers, and then under the masthead of The Hartford Courant, which liked to boast that it was "The Oldest Continuously Published Newspaper in North America."

There was plenty about the job that was a dream come true. I was paid to read newspapers and talk to people on the telephone. Especially at the Courant, all manner of folks were eager to talk to me. Power players and those with institutional interests to assert, preserve and protect sought me out. Hell, presidential candidates came to see us, scheduling appointments weeks in advance; old friends suddenly became better friends. I had access. I thought I was hot stuff.

But I was shooting blanks and I knew it. Folks weren’t really coming to see me. They were visiting the masthead, looking for an endorsement or for someone to assert their point of view under the cloak of an institutional voice. There was something furtive and almost dishonest about it all. I’d get calls from politicians asking me to take on a foe, but without mentioning their name. I spent one memorable Sunday morning in the home of a Superior Court judge, who asked me for help in protecting a colleague under attack. Oh, the tangled webs woven behind the screen.

So I was not surprised the other day to see an effort by members of the Connecticut Law Tribune editorial board to rap my knuckles. I spoke in bitter terms recently about the state Supreme Court’s handling of a case involving the theft of elected offices from the Bridgeport Board of Education, a case several lawyers and I won, but in a pyrrhic sort of way: Yes, the court concluded, our clients had been unlawfully deprived of an elective office. But the clients are still out of office. The court’s decision in the case was nearly made moot by an emergency legislative fix sought by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. I screamed foul. A few days later the decision was published. I then raised questions about the timing of the court’s decision, daring to suggest that the institution is not immune from politics of its own. I reported on some whispering I heard and, and told readers it was speculation. I was discrete in reporting this whisper, but not discrete enough for the board. Does the board think I made this up out of whole cloth?

Here's the remark that yields a call for my hide:  “There was whispering around the state last week that [Justice Palmer’s] dissent was withheld as long as possible to delay publication of the decision. Some speculate that this was so the governor’s men could try to sneak through the General Assembly a measure designed to retroactively cure the issue before the high court. Perhaps it was a mere coincidence that the decision was published only days after these pages called on the court to account for the delay in publication of the opinion.”

The line between speculation and assertion of fact is a subtle one; perhaps too subtle for an editorial board with deep ties and personal affection for friends and former colleagues on the high court.

The Tribune’s editorial board and I have a long and not happy history. When I first started writing a column for the paper more than a decade ago, co-columnist Andy Thibault and I ruffled enough feathers that the Judicial Branch cancelled subscriptions to the paper. Then a board member or two threatened to resign unless I were leashed after remarks about a federal judge. Long after they resigned, another former board member kept harping about me, even suggesting he would refuse to attend an honorific event to which we were both invited if I showed up. I’ve known all along I do not play well in groups. I am still writing for the Tribune. Critics have come and gone. Welcome to the new class.

I disappoint the board, a headline screams? Well, Lah Dee Dah.

You see, there’s a new kid on the block, and she has energized the board. Former Supreme Court Justice Joette Katz resigned from the high court not long ago to accept a political appointment from Gov. Malloy. She now sits atop the Department of Children and Families, where she is attempting the impossible -- bringing integrity to what has hitherto been known as a viper's nest. But I suspect the new job that gives her most satisfaction is as chair of the Tribune’s editorial board, a 30-some member panel whose vice chairman, Jeremy Paul, has been the target of a barb or two at my pen, and who, after the University of Connecticut’s standing among law schools fell yet again in national rankings, decided he had enough of presiding over a law school losing momentum in the rating wars.

Katz has brought a new energy to the board. In recent months, the board has shown a refreshing ambition. You get the sense that after more than 20 years on the state’s high court, where she traveled from the idealism of a former public defender to a right-center accommodation of the imperatives of the institutional class, she is relieved to be able to speak out on a broader range of issues. She brings to the board the prestige and connections of a former justice. She is what a sociologist might call a great institutional bridge, a source of cross-fertilization: call her the eighth justice, now sitting atop an editorial board composed of dozens of lawyers. If you don’t think her phone is ringing with all sorts of suggestions about what to write from all sorts of people, then you don’t understand how influence gets peddled.

It was reported to me that plenty of folks, some in mighty high places, were more than a trifle sore about my having poked at the Supreme Court regarding the Bridgeport school case. I can live with that. I may well have crossed a line I should not have crossed; I don't claim institutional perfection. It is dangerous to write about your own cases in the form of essays: litigation is a form of warfare that draws on deep passions. I’ve watched with foreboding as two young lawyers I know were recently grieved for outspoken comments about judges. An officer of the court is not perfectly free to speak his or her mind. I get that: We are members of the court’s army, after all. I check my mail daily: If I erred, I will appear to defend my comments before the Grievance Committee. Counsel I have consulted tell me I am on the safe side of the line. The board thinks otherwise. That is what hearings are for. But the editorial board calling for a grievance? That's a first.

A brush back pitch from the Tribune editorial board is mighty thin gruel, especially coming from former-Justice Katz’s crew. An editorial board lacks transparency. What’s more, there is a cloying quality to service on such a board: unwilling to stake a claim to influence in your own right, you cloak what you think in the murky process of a group vote and then seek to magnify the diffidence by claiming to speak for an institution. Been there; done that. I don’t enjoy cogito incognitus.

Quite frankly, I am surprised that Katz has time to play nameless critic. She has been commissioner of the Department of Children and Families for little more than a year. During that year, the agency has been hit by scandal. Many employees are accused of fraud for having claimed emergency relief benefits to which they were not entitled -- some have been fired in the D-SNAP controversy. The agency has disciplined some of these folks for taking hundreds of dollars, but to make its case, confidential information has been obtained about the employees, perhaps by DCF administrators. Yes, Ms. Katz, there is a mote in my eye; what of the beam in yours?

I checked out the list of editorial board members this morning. Some bright stars of the bar shine there. I am diminished by their scorn, but unbent. If you say it, own it, I believe. But that’s risky. You might become a target of some other pseudonymous group fielding phone calls from friends in high places and asking for a favor. Alas, I have disappointed the good people of Oz. Alas.  

Comments: (2)

  • Grievance Committee
    The ordinary folks of Connecticut are glad you took a stand on the Bridgeport issue I am sure. We all do not get the protection of knowing folks in high places so we need a voice out there for us little folks without connections.
    Thanks for being that Voice. Too bad more lawyers do not say what they really feel or see . Perhaps if they did the Wizard would not be able to hide behind the curtain in the Emerald City.
    Posted on April 16, 2012 at 1:18 pm by Priscilla
  • Say What?
    Say what? I'll keep this short: I have no idea what this is all 'bout, but shure sounds Byzantine to me. and how are the next generation of lawyers going to pay off their education loans. Was that short enough?
    Bill: Inside baseball. Be happy you are not a lawyer.
    Posted on April 15, 2012 at 2:04 pm by william doriss

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