We've got a pretty good thing going in the federal courts of this state, at least I think we do. It is a small bar. Almost all of the judges have roots in the state and still draw nourishment from relationships formed at the bar. We've not yet become a big state, replete with brash big-state norms.
That seems to be changing. Big-city lawyers trot through the Courts on loan from Boston and New York. Every third word is "sanction." Give ‘em what they want or they'll seek sanctions. Connecticut also seems to attract federal judges looking for a break from the big-jurisdiction grind. From time to time, a new kid arrives on the block, huffing and puffing foul winds.
Rumor has it that the federal judges in Connecticut meet periodically to discuss the district's affairs. Because they are judges these meetings have a name. Because they are federal judges, these meetings are called "meetings of the minds." I am making an appeal to these minds to meet and to discuss how better to orient visiting judges to the mores of Connecticut practice.
A judge newly arrived from a foreign state typically has no comprehension of what goes on in our state courts. The distinctive feature of state court practice is individual sequestered voir dire, the slow-as-molasses method of questioning each and every juror outside the presence of all other panelists in each and every case. The state court system moves at a snail's pace by contrast to other states. Rocket-docket jockeys landing in Connecticut are sure to find this frustrating. But, as practitioners in the state system know, it is hard to get a state jury case to trial. When you get a judge's attention, you fight to keep it.
Judges who come from Connecticut understand this. And, most often, a federal judge who actually practiced in Connecticut has working relationships with his state-court counterparts. But drop a newbie federal judge on loan from some big city or big state into Connecticut, and fur starts flying.
Not long ago, our firm had a case reassigned to a federal judge I never of. The judge came from a much larger state, with multi-district federal courts. I sighed when I saw the transfer, but was relieved to see the case would finally be tried.
An order issues. There will be a pre-trial on a date certain. Trial counsel must appear at the conference with authority to settle the case. But the scheduling gods quarelled on Olympus. A state court judge owned my time. My paralegal called the foreign federal judge's clerk to ask for relief. We proposed a couple dates when it looked as though jury selection in the state case would be over. The judge issued an order directing me to call my adversary to check to see if the proposed dates worked; in the absence of an agreement, the original date would hold.
Jury selection in my state case, a non-death capital case, hit the wall. There was no good date for a federal pre-trial, and evidence was set to begin in my state case the date of the federal pre-trial. We moved to continue the federal case. Motion ignored. So I reassigned the federal case with regret to an associate. I simply cannot be in two places at once.
She arrived at the pre-trial with settlement authority and the judge ordered the firm to go to retrieve the client, who had no car. I get a call from a frantic associate. When I balked at lack of notice and being compelled to serve as a livery, the judge threatened to send the marshals to close my office, and to detain me so that I could go and retrieve a client who had not previously been ordered to appear. He muttered about use of the Supremacy Clause to disrupt my state case.
The judge kept my associate and the client at a pre-trial set to begin at noon until seven p.m., boasting along the way that he had persuaded a local restaurant to remain open to midnight to accommodate another pre-trial. It feels like something out of Joseph Conrad.
This might be how business is done in states that regard the District Court as a plantation and judges as masters. But this is Connecticut, isn't it? I am appealing to the District Court judges to do a better job of orienting newcomers to the state. If we lawyers have to learn to speak bully, we will. But it has been awfully nice avoiding that thus far. It can be avoided still.
Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.