New judge nominations questioned during state's fiscal emergency

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy nominated 13 judges for Superior Court seats earlier this month on the same day he asked the Judicial Branch to reduce its budget by $21 million to help balance the state budget.

Malloy announced at the same time that he may name four additional judges in the near future.

The nominations, if confirmed by the General Assembly, would commit the state to paying millions of dollars for decades to come. Judges receive an annual salary of $167,634, plus benefits, and upon retirement receive a pension equaling about two-thirds of their salary.

Malloy's timing raised the ire of rank-and-file state workers being asked to make concessions or face thousands of layoffs, and left others wondering whether there would be enough staff to support the new judges. In the past year, the Judicial Branch closed four courthouses, laid off 300 workers and absorbed a $77 million budget reduction. 

The governor has been touting a reduction in crime, and his administration has reduced the state's prison population with its Second Chance Society initiative, which is designed to help offenders become productive citizens.

All of which begs the question: Does the state need new judges? 

Malloy spokesman Chris Collibee said the governor and members of his administration are regularly in contact with the Judicial Branch about their needs. Malloy said the new judge appointments represent "a fraction of the nearly 40 vacancies on the Superior Court and that the new judges would provide critical judicial capacity in performing the essential duties of the court system."

Nobody, it appears, has been clamoring for new judges, although they are required under state law.

"We can find no record of the Judicial Branch requesting the large number of judges that appear to be on the verge of being named," Charles DellaRocco, president of Local 749 of Council 4 AFSCME, which represents Judicial employees, said in testimony to the Judiciary Committee submitted for a public hearing on May 22.

State law authorizes the appointment of 201 judges and justices to the Superior, Appellate and Supreme courts. According to the Judicial Branch, 162 judges are seated. The law authorizes 184 Superior Court judges, and 148 are seated.

The figures do not include about 27 judges age 60 or older who have elected to take senior status. The status enables the judges to retire and collect their pension and to earn a per diem rate for those days they work. The senior judges are not allowed to collect more than full-time judges.

The figures also do not include dozens of state judge trial referees, or judges who have reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 and continue to work on a per diem basis. 

According to the Judicial Branch, 109 senior judges and state referees worked a total of 13,022 days between July 1, 2015, and June 30, 2016. In New London County, senior judges and trial referees preside over criminal, civil and juvenile cases nearly every day of the year.

Caseloads for judges do not appear to have increased. In fact, the average of 1,132 cases per Superior Court judge during the 2016 fiscal year was the lowest in eight years. The Day compiled the figures using figures provided by the Judicial Branch and caseload statistics available on the branch website for criminal, civil, family, motor vehicle and juvenile cases before the courts.

Rhonda Stearley-Hebert, communications manager for the Judicial Branch, said branch officials cannot recall a time when all of the authorized judge positions were filled.

"Historically, the chief court administrator has always strived to fill gaps through the reassigning of judges when necessary, and the work of our judge trial referees," Stearley-Hebert said.

If confirmed by the General Assembly, the new judges will be assigned to hear criminal matters at some of the 20 Geographical Area Courthouses throughout the state.

The Judicial Branch could not comment last week on whether the branch would have enough courtrooms and staff to support the new judges.

"Without a budget in place, we are unable to answer this question," Stearley-Hebert said.

The branch was able to make the $21 million reduction requested by the governor using $18 million budgeted for collective bargaining increases that did not occur and additional savings resulting from staff who have left voluntarily and not been replaced, according to Stearley-Hebert.

One of the staffing areas hit hardest by last year's layoffs was judicial marshals. The branch started last year with 746 marshals, laid off 101 in June, then re-employed 31 later in the year after determining the branch could not operate with fewer than 645 marshals.

"It should be a shared sacrifice for everybody," said Joseph Gaetano, president of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 731. "It doesn't end with 17 new judges. Each one of them is going to require support staff — marshals and clerks. As of right now, we are grossly understaffed in the range of well over 100 marshals short."

Gaetano said marshals are having a difficult time getting days off and are doing additional work to the point where it's a security risk. 

In the ongoing contract negotiations and amid the state budget crisis, marshals and other unionized state workers are being asked to forgo pay increases for two years, increase their pension payments by 2 percent and take on more health care expenses. In return, the contract covering worker benefits would be extended by five years, to 2027.


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