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Judge Spellman's DUI arrest won't impact his $113,000-a-year pension

After Judge Steven Spellman's arrest last week on a charge of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, his brother, Groton City police Chief Michael Spellman, told The Day that the judge would face "consequences for his actions."

Indeed, the Noank judge's prominence led to a much-read news story in which police relayed reports of Spellman appearing intoxicated, stumbling outside a grocery store at 6:15 p.m., before getting behind the wheel of a car.

The shame of that is certainly consequential.

I appreciate that the judge promptly apologized and suggested he is getting help for his problem. I am sure we all wish him well with that.

Still, I can't help but consider how much better the judge may be positioned than so many of the rest of us in contending with this kind of arrest.

When pressed, his employer, the state of Connecticut Judicial Branch, wouldn't say whether there would be any job consequences for a judge charged with adjudicating laws being accused of breaking one.

"We will have to see how things play out," a branch spokesperson told me, in response to a question about whether he could continue to serve on the bench if convicted.

The judge was using five days of paid personal time after his arrest and could also use vacation and unused sick time going forward, the spokesperson said this week, adding, "these issues have not been determined."

While saying the branch could not comment on a pending case, the spokesperson did note that there is a diversionary alcohol education program for first-time offenders, and successful completion of that would lead to dismissal of the charges.

Spellman turns 70, the mandatory retirement age for judges, in June. That would put him on the state's very generous retirement pension plan for judges, in which he will collect two-thirds of the current salary for a Superior Court judge, $172,663.

I wonder if the Judicial Branch, which is so badly clogged because of COVID-19 that people are waiting up to six months to appear in court for adjudication of felony charges, will resolve Judge Spellman's DUI arrest in the next four months, before his $113,957-a-year pension kicks in.

Will he return to the bench? No one knows.

Will the process be even-handed? We hope.

Spellman was appointed to the bench in 2014, a time when the General Assembly was grappling with the unfairness of a system in which judges retiring at the age of 70 earned a full pension, even if they only served a few years.

Former Gov. Dannel Malloy had nominated some in their late 60s, which meant they only had to serve a few years before they hit the jackpot, a rich pension for life.

Legislators proposed a reform, pro-rating the final pension for judges who worked less than 10 years before retiring, so they would get a percentage of the two thirds, depending on how many years they worked.

But the final version allowed those with previous years of state employment to apply those to the needed 10 years of service on the bench for the judge's pension.

Spellman, who was appointed at the age of 62, before the reform bill passed, served previously as a state administrator and state senator and is entitled to the full judge's pension.

His arrest and imminent retirement reminds me of the need for more reform to the pension system for judges.

As it stands, anyone who worked part time as a legislator — a lot of them are lawyers, after all — could get an appointment to the bench late in their careers and collect a lifetime pension so robust that it would make most anyone in the private sector blush.

This is the opinion of David Collins.


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