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Judge presiding over triple murder unbenched by budget concerns

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The state Judicial Branch temporarily has suspended employment of its 121 senior judges and judge trial referees due to budgetary concerns and the coronavirus pandemic — including Senior Judge Arthur C. Hadden, who was presiding over the upcoming triple murder trial of Sergio Correa.

The branch says it has saved approximately $1.5 million on per diem payments to the senior judges and JTRs since March. Court operations were reduced and consolidated to fewer courthouses during the pandemic, with many judges working from home.

One of the attorneys in Correa's case said this week that in a major criminal case like Correa's, where the defendant faces a life sentence if convicted, it may be a "penny wise and dollar foolish" decision to remove the judge who has presided over the case for more than a year.

Judges in Connecticut state courts can opt to take senior status at age 65, or after 20 years on the bench, to enjoy a more flexible schedule. They collect their pension and earn $259 for every day they work, not to exceed the amount paid to other Superior Court judges.

Judge trial referees are those who have reached the mandatory retirement of age of 70, but opt to continue working. They also earn the $259 per diem fee. They are authorized to preside over most criminal and civil proceedings with consent from the parties involved or their attorneys.

"The use of senior judges and JTRs has always been conditioned upon the operational needs of the Judicial Branch," Chief Court Administrator Patrick L. Carroll said in an email. "Due to the exigencies of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact upon the Branch and the state's budget, the payment of per diems to senior judges and JTRs has been temporarily suspended."

Carroll said the current suspension of per diem payments is not intended to be a permanent suspension.

"As the impact of the pandemic subsides and the budget situation stabilizes, the expectation is that we will integrate the senior judges and JTRs back into the workflow as needed," he added. 

Judge Hunchu Kwak has been assigned to Correa's case, which is expected to be tried as soon as the Judicial Branch determines a trial can be conducted safely. Correa and his sister, Ruth, are accused of killing Janet, Kenneth and Matthew Lindquist and burning down their home during a crime spree in Griswold on Dec. 20, 2017. A crime of that magnitude had not occurred in Connecticut since the home invasion and murders of three members of the Petit family in Cheshire in July 2007.

Correa's attorney, Joseph E. Lopez, said he doesn't know Kwak, who has been on the bench for 10 years, or have anything against him, but said Hadden was already deeply immersed in the case.

Hadden, who is 69, is a former prosecutor who has presided over multiple homicide cases since being appointed in 2002. He had presided over Correa's probable cause hearing, reviewed hundreds of pages of documents and ruled on multiple motions, Lopez said. The judge had met with attorneys in chambers numerous times and is fully aware of all the evidentiary issues and issues that may arise at trial.

"At this point, we don't know what this means going forward and how it may affect the proceedings and whether we have to relitigate issues or ask the new judge to review hundreds of documents," Lopez said.

Attorneys for the state and Correa are expected to meet with Kwak about the case on Sept. 9.

In the New London Judicial District, eight senior judges or judge trial referees have been temporarily removed from the roster, including both of the judges who presided over juvenile court cases, which are being heard in Hartford during the pandemic.

k.florin@theday.com

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