Covidtopia --Is Connecticut's Judicial Branch Paying Attention?

            I’ve been tempted from time to time to become a judge. Being relieved from the grind of eking a living from the raw suffering of others is the principal draw: imagine never having to ask another human being whose life hangs in the balance for a fee? And think of the ability to do good, to use my discretion to benefit folks in ways large and small.            

            But it is not to be.            

            Instead, I sit on the sidelines of justice, railing at seeming abuses of judicial discretion, and, thereby, continuing to hustle for fees.            

             I should be glad that some judges in Connecticut continue to insist on pointless court appearances in criminal cases. Clients understand having to pay for the time it takes to commute to another city, and then sit, sometimes for hours, in a courthouse waiting for a moment or two of a judge’s time. It may be that the process is part of the punishment, and endless court appearances are part of the cost of conduct that draws the suspicions and ire of the state.            

               But in the era of COVID-19, a trip to court is, if the CDC is to be believed, a risky thing. (I believe the CDC, by the way, and see no harm in social distancing, masks and other public health precautions. But, then again, I am now a senior citizen, and have grown accustomed to a certain pandemic-imposed slowdown.)          

              In the past couple of weeks, I’ve detected a growing frustration with the Connecticut’s Judicial Branch about its handling of the pandemic. Judges and lawyers alike grope for signs of the Branch’s plans. There appears to be no central policy, no plan, and an absence of the recognition that all of the stakeholders in the system – judges, lawyers, parties, jurors – value transparency.          

              What we are getting is indecision. The result is something like feudal chaos, with individual judges having broad discretion to decide when and how to conduct court proceedings.            

              I’ve heard this week from criminal defense lawyers in Stamford, Waterbury and Hartford that lawyers and their clients have been commanded to physically appear in court for routine hearings. Once they arrive at the courthouse, lawyers and clients run the typical security gauntlet, and then are left to mingle – sometimes for hours – in the lobbies with others.          

             Have any of the robe-wearing Solons in these courthouses read the recent CDC guidelines about avoiding prolonged close contact with others?          

             Apparently, they did, because, once permitted to enter a courtroom, defense lawyer and client are left to confront the judge and prosecutor by way of a video monitor – both the prosecution and the judge attend meetings remotely, presumably out of concerns for their own health.          

              This double standard may well be quite literally sickening.          

              Not all judges behave as though they are to the bench born. In some courthouses, judges are outright solicitous of defense counsel, inviting them make known to the court whether they have health needs or concerns that yield a strong preference for avoiding physical appearances.          

             Why isn’t that the rule in every courthouse?          

             One reason is that the Judicial Branch, after more than seven months of the pandemic, still hasn’t a clue about what to do. This while jury summons are being sent statewide for jury selection dates in November, even as hospitalization, death and the infection rates climb statewide, and some 19 municipal infectious “hotspots” are currently being monitored.          

             Is anyone in the Judicial Branch paying attention?        

             Great drama attends the selection of a new Pope. The College of Cardinals meets secretly to select a new leader. When a selection is finally made, the faithful, and the world at large, first learn of it through white smoke from a chimney atop the Sistine Chapel. (Black smokes means a vote has taken place but no Pope has been selected.)        

             I expect better than inconsistent smoke signals from the Judicial Branch. So do lawyers, trial judges, clients, court staff and potential jurors. Does anyone in the Branch have a plan? If so, who? And when will the rest of us learn of it?        

               I read Chief Justice Richard Robinson’s bold promises about jury trials last September. Were the words sound and fury signifying confusion? It sure looks that way.  


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