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'People's Judge' McMahon retiring but not quite leaving

By Karen Florin

Publication: The Day

Published November 04. 2013 4:00AM
Sean D. Elliot The Day
Judge Kevin McMahon is retiring but hopes to continue working up to 10 months a year.
He says he plans to stay on awhile with senior status

The most oft-repeated joke at Judge Kevin P. McMahon's retirement party Friday - and there were many jokes at his honor's expense - was that he was retiring, but would be back on the bench come Monday morning.

And it's true.

"The People's Judge," as he is known, is taking senior status in December at age 63, mostly, he says, to appease his wife, Patti, who wants to spend two months in Florida during the winter. He's not hanging up his robe any time soon.

McMahon was appointed to the bench in 1993 after serving about 20 years in other state positions. Senior status is eligible to judges who have reached age 65 or have served 20 years. Senior judges enjoy a more flexible schedule. They collect their pension and earn a per diem fee, if they continue working, not to exceed the amount paid to other Superior Court judges.

If the powers-that-be in the Judicial Branch allow him to continue doing what he likes to do, which is working at the Geographical Area courts, particularly GA10 on Broad Street in New London, McMahon said he will continue to hear cases up to 10 months a year.

"If they don't, the debate between Mrs. McMahon and Judge McMahon will end sooner than they think," he said. "Otherwise, it could go on for years."

The occasion of his psuedo-retirement afforded his friends a long-awaited opportunity to roast him, and nearly 300 people turned out at the Great Neck Country Club in Waterford for the event. The quick-witted Judge Patrick J. Clifford, a close friend, served as the master of ceremonies, and the entire room roared with laughter as speaker after speaker serenaded McMahon with insults and praise.

Thrilled with the turnout, which he said he saw as a vindication of his not-always-orthodox style on the bench, McMahon walked around to each table to greet his guests and vowed to have at least four retirement parties in the coming years.

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People tell him he has a tough job, but McMahon said "it comes easy" to him, that he has a gift for analyzing things and making decisions.

"I look at things and go, boom," he said.

He attributes his comfort on the bench, in part, to his many years of experience in criminal law. He's not afraid to take a stand when he doesn't agree with something, such as a new law that allows Department of Correction officials to override judges' sentences in drunken driving cases.

"If I become afraid, I don't belong here," he said. "I've heard judges say, 'I don't want to do that this term, I'm up for reappointment.' I say, 'bull****. You're a judge. Do your job."

The funny stories about McMahon, are endless. As a prosecutor in Hartford Superior Court, he showed up one morning wearing one black shoe and one brown.

"He explained to the jury that he had the same pair at home and he hoped they liked them," said Judge Joan A. Alexander, who worked with him in the state's attorney's office. She said McMahon was good at sizing up cases and witnesses and could "think on his feet."

"The jurors loved him, as you could imagine," Alexander said. "The older ladies thought he was their son. The younger ones thought he was their brother."

Another co-worker from his prosecutor days, Barbara Struzenski, tells the story of McMahon's rescue dog, Brophy, which suffered separation anxiety so severe that McMahon brought it to work. The dog "went crazy" when McMahon left the office to go into court, Struzenski said, so McMahon put it into a small room off the main courtroom.

"When Kevin walked out the door into the courtroom, the dog went nuts," she said. "You could hear Kevin talking to the judge or presenting a file and there's the dog crying in the background. Finally, someone opened the door by accident and the damn dog ran into the courtroom. It was the funniest thing."

Reminded of the incident during an interview at GA10 last week, McMahon laughed and called it "a setup." The presiding judge, Richard A. Damiani, had some strong words for him that day, McMahon said. But the two of them remained good friends until Damiani died suddenly in July 2012.

McMahon said he's always had rescue dogs. These days he and Patti own Friar, a 140-pound Malamute.

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Court officials bear the brunt of McMahon's bark once in a while - "Get your act together!" he bellows from his chambers when he's ready to hear cases and the staff is scurrying to get files together. In his zeal for moving cases off the docket, he occasionally overrides the plea deals discussed by prosecutors and defense attorneys. Michael E. Kennedy, the supervisory prosecutor at GA10, has affectionately dubbed the court, "McMahonistan."

McMahon can grouse about something for weeks or months - such as the five-year drought in pay raises for state judges that ended earlier this year - but his coworkers say he doesn't hold a grudge and is generous to a fault. He volunteered to officiate at the marriage of a court employee and her long-time partner as soon as gay marriage became legal in Connecticut. He offers staff the use of his Florida vacation home when it is vacant. His coworkers say that if somebody goes into his chambers with a problem, he immediately picks up the phone to see if he can help. And he was among the first judges to welcome newspaper and television photographers into his court a few years ago when judges instituted a new camera rule.

"I've got nothing to hide," he said.

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McMahon grew up in New Britain, "right in the middle of the industrial area," with three sisters and two brothers. He can still slip easily into the "New Breh-nn" accent.

His father, a doctor, died of cancer when McMahon was 11. He says the "good sisters" of St. Joseph's parish thought he needed "a little guidance," so he attended St. John's Prep school in Danvers, Mass. He went on to Providence College, and his friends joked Friday that if a defendant wears a Friars shirt to court, he gets a break. Upon graduating, he went directly to Western New England College School of Law.

He started working for the state as a temporary assistant clerk - "the lowest position there is" - in Hartford Superior Court while attending law classes at night. He worked his way up to chief clerk by the time he graduated from law school.

McMahon says the late Judge John Brennan helped him get his prosecutor's job, which he had for 13 years before Gov. Lowell Weicker nominated him to the bench in 1993.

McMahon says his family was not politically connected, even though his sister, Faith McMahon, became Bloomfield's first female mayor and served as a state representative before dying in 2009. Still, he did have the good fortune of meeting fellow New Britain native Jay F. Malcynsky early in life. Malcynsky, one of the state's most powerful lobbyists, helped McMahon get nominated as a judge.

Niantic attorney Ronald F. Stevens said he met McMahon when he was in law school.

"He called me and said, 'Could I open an office in Niantic and make a living?' I was a young lawyer here and didn't have much competition. I said, 'Kevin, I don't think you could make a living here.' ''

Stevens likes to tell McMahon that he wouldn't have gone into state service and become a judge if not for that advice.

"He has this great Irish heart and he's willing to listen to arguments," Stevens said. "He can quickly look at a case and determine where the bull**** is. If the state's attorney has overcharged he says, 'That's bull****.' If the defense attorney is asking for too much, he says "the pig factor" is at use.

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Waterford Police Chief Murray Pendleton, who with his wife and others joins the McMahons for Wednesday night dinner at various restaurants in the area, says McMahon is "a get in your face kind of guy."

"He's a little bit outside of the norm of what we might envision today's politically correct judicial person to be," Pendleton said. While a sergeant, Pendleton said, he tried one of his first cases before McMahon and lost because of a procedure McMahon didn't think was appropriate. McMahon was 'probably correct,' '' Pendleton said.

The Waterford Police Department, which takes in a lot of evidence from shoplifters during the holiday season, appreciates McMahon's ability to dispose of cases quickly.

"The Constitution guarantees you the right to a speedy trial, and this guy can move cases," Pendleton said. "He knows how to clear out an evidence room."

Pendleton thinks McMahon will be around for a long time.

"He may take his trips and vacations but I still think he's going to be in your face," Pendleton said.

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Many of the jokes Friday centered around McMahon's former addiction to cigarettes. He would rush to light up as soon as he got off the bench and would stand outside and smoke with other staff during breaks. He stopped smoking six years ago after he suffered a heart attack at Superior Court in Norwich.

"I imagine I'm the only judge who got taken out of a courtroom into an ambulance to a waiting helicopter," he said.

Doctors told him he had plaque buildup, he said, but no problems with his heart valves.

"It was a wakeup call," he said. "I started taking care of myself."

Not surprisingly, McMahon stirred things up during his stints at the Norwich courthouse, known as GA21. The Norwich staff does things their own way, and the ladies in the prosecutor's office jokingly erected a sign that says, "This is not GA10."

In April of this year, McMahon brought a teddy bear with a Red Sox shirt to work in Norwich, placed it on the bench and called it "Tom Tom" in honor of the supervisory prosecutor, Thomas M. Griffin. McMahon said it would remain there as long as the Boston team was in first place. The bear stayed there for most of the season, according to Griffin, who said it only came off for a few weeks when the team slipped out of first place or when another judge was on the bench. Griffin, who is organized and orderly while McMahon can sometimes be, in his own words, "loosey goosey," tolerated McMahon remarkably well, according to their coworkers.

Chief Probation officer Vickie Lathrop and others have suggested that McMahon, being such a character, should have his own television show. McMahon laughs at the idea and says he would do it for a fraction of the money that some of the big-time TV judges get paid.

Mostly, though, he just wants to keep presiding over the daily crush of cases at the local courthouses, vacationing in Florida and going sailing in Niantic Bay in his 25-foot Grady White motorboat.

And there's nothing he likes more than sitting around with his friends and talking, McMahon said.

k.florin@theday.com

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