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The curious case of the missing judge

Do state judges in Connecticut have unlimited sick and vacation time? That is the implication of the case of Superior Court Judge Alice Bruno, who, Hartford Courant columnist Kevin Rennie revealed three weeks ago, has not shown up for work for two years but nevertheless has been paid her full salary, totaling more than $340,000 since she disappeared.

Through her lawyer, the judge pleads various unspecified medical issues.

The Judicial Department seems distressed by the situation but seems to think that it is powerless to do anything about it directly, the judge being an "independent constitutional officer" whose compensation is outside the department's jurisdiction.

The Judicial Review Council can suspend judges if they don't perform "impartially, competently, and diligently." But complaints against judges are secret until validated by the council and there is no indication that it has received a complaint against Judge Bruno, though Rennie reported that the deputy chief court administrator had threatened to file a complaint and the council could rule Bruno disabled, qualifying her for two-thirds of her regular salary of $180,460.

Last week Governor Lamont grandly announced the start of state government's family and medical leave program for ordinary people, which provides limited benefits, but he has not yet remarked on the $340,000 paid to the judge who hasn't worked for two years. Ordinary people could get the impression that state government remains a fantasy world of entitlement.

The situation with Judge Bruno may be unusual but since it has been going on for two years, it should have been noticed, announced by the Judicial Department, and acted upon by somebody long before now.

Nor have the state auditors been seen on the case. One of their public reports might have prompted action long ago.

And where are the bleeding hearts of the social service industry who complain constantly that state government doesn't have enough money for them? Somehow the bleeding hearts never have a problem with extravagance in government employee compensation — maybe because the government employees always line up with them on the political left to clamor for more money for government.

At least state Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, co-chairman of the General Assembly's Judiciary Committee, says he has inquired about Judge Bruno and is likely to pursue the matter if it's not resolved before the legislature reconvenes in February.

If the Judicial Department's hands are really tied here, legislation is needed to untie them and to guarantee that similar derogations of duty in the judiciary will be promptly announced and corrected. It's too bad for Connecticut's taxpayers and for residents who can't take care of themselves and need government's help that another $50,000 or so may be expended uselessly by the Judicial Department before state government can acknowledge and resolve the scandal of the missing and prematurely pensioned judge.

OLD SAYBROOK'S CONTEMPT

Even on the municipal level in Connecticut, government's first instinct is often for secrecy, no matter how basic or trivial the subject.

So it was this year in Old Saybrook, where the New Haven Register sought access to the financial settlements of two typical damage lawsuits against the town's police department. In one case, a woman claimed that a police dog bit her unjustifiably. In the other, a man claimed that he was wrongly arrested.

The settlements were government expenses and thus were required to be disclosed. But Old Saybrook town government stalled for nine months until just hours before the state Freedom of Information Commission was to hold a hearing on the Register's complaint.

The newspaper surely would have won the case, and the town surely knew that it would lose, since towns have lost similar cases about disclosure of financial settlements. But Old Saybrook chose to spend more public money to try to tire the newspaper out and keep the public ignorant.

If the legislature ever really believed in accountability in government, it would enact law compelling the FOI Commission to impose hefty fines in cases of such contempt.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Connecticut

 

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