Retiring chief justice opened the shades on judiciary process
Hartford — Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers, who announced Nov. 2 that she is retiring in February after more than a decade as the head of the Connecticut Supreme Court and state Judicial Branch, was sworn in during an ugly time in the court's history.
She and her colleagues on the state's highest court grappled with weighty issues such as the death penalty, school funding and workplace discrimination. But her biggest contributions may prove not to be judicial decisions, but her commitment to making the judiciary transparent and accessible to all.
During a recent interview, Rogers, who turns 61 this month, reflected on her tenure and confirmed that while she is fully retiring from the Judicial Branch, she is staying involved in the legal profession for the foreseeable future.
Rogers hinted she may have opportunities on the national stage to parlay the experience she has gained working to make Connecticut's court system more accessible and inclusive, though she's not yet prepared to talk about specifics.
"I would like to be able to use my experience, particularly with respect to the Public Service and Trust Commission, to hopefully help some other places that may be looking for that kind of expertise, and it appears that may be a possibility," she said.
Rogers left the bench and her third-floor chambers on Capitol Avenue often to back up her commitment to making the judiciary transparent and accessible to all.
In 2016, at a "Law School for Journalists" program to help journalists understand how the court system works, Rogers shed her business attire for jeans and a sweater and played the role of a self-represented victim in a domestic violence case. In 2017, Rogers, an avid Mets fan, took on the role of a TV sportscaster at the Journalism School for Judges program, which was an opportunity for judges to learn how a news program is produced. Both of those programs were organized by the Judicial Media Committee, which was established to foster a better relationship between the judiciary and members of the media.
"She had this vision," said Judge Susan B. Handy, who co-chairs a Judicial Media subcommittee that organizes the events. "To say that it has been accomplished would be an understatement. For those of us who work together on this committee, we all feel we have a better understanding of each others' roles and a respect for one another."
Rogers lives in Old Lyme with her husband, attorney Edward V. O'Hanlan, their golden doodle, Eloise, and a "grand dog" that she is caring for temporarily. Her children, son Ned and daughter Sean, are grown and living out of state. Her parents live nearby, Rogers said, and she and her husband plan to stay in the area while spending more time at a home they own in coastal Maine.
Coming into the job at a time when public trust in the courts was diminished due to revelations that the courts had maintained a system of secret sealed files to protect those in power and an important Supreme Court decision involving access to court documents was held to aid a judicial appointment, Rogers knew things had to change. She wanted the shades opened, offering a clear view into the workings of the Judicial Branch.
"In some ways that was an opportunity, because I think many people in the branch were excited about change," she said. "It was clear the legislature was looking for some changes in the way we were doing business."
She established a Public Service and Trust Commission and invited judges, lawyers, branch employees, advocacy groups, the media and others to make suggestions on how to improve transparency and access.
The goal, she said, was not to produce "a nice document," but to create and implement a strategic plan.
With her support, judges passed a rule that enables news cameras, previously forbidden, into many court proceedings. The Judicial Branch website has been improved continually to provide easy access to court documents. A telephone translation service is available in 150 languages for those who don't speak English, and forms are available in the top three non-English languages: Spanish, Portuguese and Polish. Rogers recruited a corps of volunteer attorneys who during the past seven years helped more than 13,000 people who couldn't afford a lawyer.
Described by friends and colleagues as a calm, confident and low-key leader, Rogers was quick to say that the late Justice David M. Borden had set in motion efforts to reform the system while acting as chief justice prior to Rogers being sworn in on April 25, 2007. She said also that "none of this would have happened" without the support of key staff, most of whom were there for her entire tenure.
She created a Judicial Ethics Committee so that judges could inquire whether a planned activity, such as sitting on a board or commission, would be an ethical violation. She said the committee has been "very well used."
Rogers met regularly with members of minority bar associations on issues of racial bias in the legal system and to explore ways to increase the diversity of the pool of attorneys seeking to become judges.
"I'm a firm believer that the person on the bench should reflect the society they are making decisions about," she said. "Internally, there was a lot of focus and training on cultural competency, respecting and understanding where people are coming from."
She endured a grueling confirmation hearing in 2015, when clients from family court cases insisted over the course of several hours that the family courts were more intent on squeezing money out of clients than helping them in divorce and parental rights cases. One lawmaker, state Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, was highly critical.
"I enjoyed it," Rogers said of the six-hour ordeal. "First of all, it was an opportunity to talk to some of the legislators about some of the things we were doing. It was opportunity to explain from the family side some of the things we have been doing and what we were looking to do, and to get input as to what their concerns were."
Several reforms of the family court system were instituted during her tenure, including the replacement of guardian ad litems, who were paid attorneys, with family relations counselors to look into what would be best for the children in many contested divorce cases. She said she wanted those cases to be approached not as "Mr. vs. Mrs." but as "In the matter of the family."
On the bench, her philosophy was one of "judicial restraint," in which she tried to understand the law and apply it to the record in a particular case. Rogers said she tried to write opinions with as much clarity as possible and considers her writing style "more Hemingway than Fitzgerald."
Associate Justice Richard N. Palmer said Rogers was the right person for the job. Nominated to the bench and appointed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell, she had been sworn in as a Superior Court judge in 1998. She presided over juvenile and civil matters in Bridgeport, Stamford and Middletown before being elevated to the Appellate Court in March 2006. A year later, she was sworn in as the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
"She's by nature calm and thoughtful and confidence-inspiring, and really pretty much right away things turned around, both from the standpoint of the branch and the court's perspective," Palmer said.
Hartford attorney Louis R. Pepe said Rogers helped cases move more quickly through the high court. He said the Individual Calendaring Program she established, in which judges are appointed for the duration of a civil case, has helped tremendously.
Pepe suggested that Rogers managed not to let occasional hostility among the justices get out of control.
"Judges are not easily managed," he said. "Supreme Court justices are much worse, as you can imagine. So we can say she didn't always succeed if we saw hostile or vitriolic (in dissenting opinions). But how many of those did she not let see the light of day? How many times did she sit down with a colleague and say, "Maybe you could say this just a little differently and still make your point?' Nobody knows, but my guess is this happened a number of times."
The outgoing chief justice said she has sought to leave behind a court system that is more welcoming to the public.
"Branch-wide, the culture of 'How can we help you?' really is there now," Rogers said. "That doesn't mean somebody on any given day might have an experience they're not thrilled about, but we really tried to make sure that when people come into our courthouses, we can assist them through, in many cases, a difficult situation for them, whether it's a family matter or criminal matter or a juvenile matter."
Editor's note: Day Staff Writer Karen Florin is the co-chair of the Judicial Media Committee.