Family court judges face the wrath of unhappy litigants and legislators
Family court judges in Connecticut have come under attack in recent years by unhappy litigants, some of whom have resorted to threats of violence and anti-semitic and racist Internet posts.
The 25 to 30 judges who preside each year over 50,000 cases, including divorces and child custody/visitation disputes, have also faced intense scrutiny by lawmakers during confirmation hearings, despite steps Judicial Branch leaders say they've taken to reduce costs, conflict and delays in family court cases.
Detractors of Judge Jane Emons of Woodbridge referred to her as a "Jew bitch" and "pedophile" in blog posts. They erected a billboard on Interstate 91 opposing her reconfirmation by the General Assembly and brought signs and T-shirts to the capital during her confirmation hearings. Another judge was photographed riding her bicycle and then referred to as a "dyke on bike." A poster used racial and homophobic slurs to describe an African-American judge who is gay.
Lawmakers have distanced themselves from the litigants behind the posts, though the House of Representatives last month ended Emons' career by failing to vote on her nomination for a second term before the end of the legislative session. The maneuver was unprecedented.
"It had a chilling effect on every single judge in the state of Connecticut," said Judge Patrick L. Carroll III, chief court administrator for the state Judicial Branch, during a phone interview.
Carroll, mindful of the separation of powers between the branches of government, said he wasn't advocating for Emons' appointment when he pleaded with House leaders to give Emons a vote. He said the Judicial Branch simply expected lawmakers to follow the process.
Emons' nomination had been vetted by the Judicial Selection Commission, a bipartisan 12-member group that recommends qualified candidates to the governor for appointment or reappointment. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy had nominated Emons for reappointment to a second eight-year term. Emons then endured a grueling hearing before the General Assembly's Judiciary Committee at which some of her opponents sat directly behind her wearing T-shirts saying STOP JUDGE EMONS. She prefaced her comments to the committee by saying she is proud to be the child and grandchild of immigrant Jews from Russia who left because of oppression with only the clothes on their back.
"I note this ... because there exists a blog and other social media posts against me and other judges and some of you and other dedicated state employees that are both anti-semitic and violent in tone," Emons told the committee. "I'm saddened by those attacks, but I'm confident they won't interfere with the important work you are doing here today."
The Judiciary Committee approved Emons' nomination with a 30-3 vote after members questioned her about the 29 grievances that had been filed against her, many of which were duplicates filed by the same unhappy litigant, and all of which were dismissed. Then, Carroll said, while Emons awaited confirmation by the full assembly, a campaign took place "in the shadows," with whispers, comments and allegations that Emons never knew about and had no opportunity to defend.
"I have to presume it influenced legislators who decided not to call for a vote," Carroll said.
Renomination in doubt
It's unclear whether Emons would have had enough votes for reconfirmation. House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz told The Courant the House didn't bring up the nomination because some lawmakers intended to stage a lengthy filibuster in the waning days of the session.
State Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, said he voted to reconfirm Emons within the Judiciary Committee but that he would have voted no had the nomination come up before the Senate. He guessed that the leadership counted the votes and decided not to hold a vote to avoid embarrassing Emons.
Suzio said some of Emons' opponents had undermined themselves with bigotry, but that he heard "horror stories" about her from others not involved in the organized campaign. She had been assigned to family court for most of her judicial career, sitting in Bridgeport, Stamford, New Haven and Milford.
"I heard enough to make me pause and realize maybe she wasn't temperamentally fit," Suzio said. "I understand she was in family court and there's a lot of emotional cases being heard and people are on edge. I understand she has to deal with some pretty emotionally packed cases. If there was one or two people, I probably wouldn't have thought too much about it, but there were a number of people from different backgrounds."
State Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, D-Hartford, a member of the Judiciary Committee, comes to confirmation hearings armed with questions about the way litigants are treated. She says she goes to court sometimes just to listen, and doesn't like what she hears.
"When you have hundreds and hundreds of families that are complaining, I take it as an insult to all those parents when we just say they are disgruntled because the decision didn't go their way," Gonzalez said during a hearing on Feb. 18, adding there are some people who "shake and throw up" knowing they have to go before certain judges who embarrass and bully them.
Court makes changes
The Judicial Branch has taken steps to make family court friendlier to the growing number of people who represent themselves and in response to a 2014 survey by the Center for Research and Public Policy of 1,000 people involved in the system. Litigants complained they were paying astronomical fees for court-appointed attorneys, including guardian ad litems whose duty is to represent the best interests of children and attorneys appointed to represent the children themselves. Other common complaints included numerous delays and the length of time spent at court hearings.
The courts limited the use of guardian ad litems by providing family relations counselors and instituted, in cases where a GAL is needed, a sliding fee scale for parents whose combined income is $100,000 a year or less.
The branch provides mediators at no cost to help families resolve issues themselves rather than ask a judge to rule. To improve efficiency, the courts instituted an individual calendar program where a single judge is assigned to work on a case.
Seventy percent of divorce cases are resolved within six months and 92 percent within a year, according to Elizabeth A. Bozzuto, chief administrative judge of the state family court system.
Bozzuto, who has been a target of threats at her home and online, said that despite efforts to reform the system over the past five years, the small percent of unhappy litigants, who she said represent less than 2 percent of cases, remain.
"They roll out a different complaint all of the time, and they are very diligent with the legislature," Bozzuto said.
She said it's embedded in the court's constitution that every decision judges make should be based on law and the evidence before them.
"We took an oath," said Bozzuto. "No one said this was going to be easy. It's our obligation to make sure our decisions are based on the evidence before us. We find the facts, draw conclusions and render a decision. That's the process, no matter how challenging it can be. We're completely insulated from fear, favor and politics. But not now though. That's exactly what interfered with Judge Emons' appointment."
New London attorney Linda L. Mariani, a divorce lawyer who has been in practice for 40 years, said family judges are spending so much time helping self-represented clients navigate the system that it's become inconvenient for paid lawyers and their clients.
"I simply feel that the existing court system, which enmeshes self-represented litigants in a quagmire of practice book rules, statutes and legal precedent is an inappropriate place for them to obtain competent relief on many levels," Mariani said in an email. "It puts too much of a burden on the judges, as the legal system is far too complicated for nonlawyers to navigate, and it is tremendously time-consuming, as judges are called upon to attempt to explain difficult concepts while on the record and while the rest of the litigants are waiting their turn."
She said the best option for divorcing people is to stay out of court, even if they have an attorney. Under the collaborative divorce approach, the parties work to solve the problem, not win the war, and they don't go into court until they have an agreement to give to the judge, she said.
People want to win in court, and if a self-represented person loses, they can't blame their lawyer, she said.
"The judges who are assigned to the family law, it's like throwing them into a pit of tigers and saying, 'Good luck, pal.' It's a very, very difficult assignment and these people are heroines and heroes who can't emerge unscathed," Mariani said.
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