OP-ED | In Defense of Family Court Judges
The Honorable Leslie Olear came before the General Assembly for reappointment on Feb. 26, having served the previous eight years with a stellar record. By all accounts, she is the type of judge that Connecticut deserves and needs: smart, hardworking and committed to doing what is fair and just.
But Judge Olear had the misfortune of being a sitting family law judge when the vote was cast, and thus became a pawn in a highly charged, politically sensitive debate over structural issues in family courts — a debate in which a small number of family court critics appear to be using the reappointment process as a means to give voice to their dissatisfaction about the functioning of that all-important docket within the Judicial Branch.
Family cases are, by their very nature, extremely emotional, extremely volatile and, often times, extremely distasteful. There were 32,987 family cases filed in the last fiscal year in Connecticut. Those cases are assigned to the family docket consisting of judges, magistrates, guardians ad litem, family services counselors, and mental health professionals, all working within the limited means of the Judicial Branch to resolve these most difficult cases.
Of the 32,987 family cases, well over half involve children and the inevitable question of which parent will retain custody of those children and what visitation rights will be granted to the other parent. Too often, those children become leverage in a fight over how the assets of the marital estate will be divvied up and what obligations will continue in the future. Because the children’s interests are at issue (and many would say their interest ought to be the most important issue), the court will occasionally involve guardians ad litem or other professionals to protect the children’s interests. Those individuals have a thankless job. They must advance the interests of the children in a situation where warring parents cannot themselves agree on what is best for their family.
To be certain, the system is not perfect. Limited resources, time constraints and unrepresented litigants all contribute to make an already emotionally difficult situation even more so. These difficulties led to the creation in 2013 of the Task Force to Study Legal Disputes Involving the Care and Custody of Minor Children, whose job it was to study the myriad of issues the courts are asked to address when dealing with the children of a divorcing couple and to make recommendations as to how the system might be improved. The task force held a series of public hearings and released its report on Jan. 31. The Judicial Branch is in the process of reviewing that report and will soon advise the General Assembly as to those steps it will implement to address the issues covered by the task force.
Unfortunately, some in our General Assembly did not have faith in the very task force they established to address the concerns with the family court. Rather than embrace the task force recommendations and confer with Chief Justice Rogers and her colleagues as to how best to remedy some of the problems that have been raised, they decided instead to use the reappointment process as a forum to express support for criticisms raised by a group of former family court litigants left embittered by their experiences in their individual cases.
So, when Judge Olear’s nomination came to the House for a reappointment vote with the full support of the Judicial Branch and the Judiciary Committee, the compliments of the attorneys and litigants who appeared before her, and an exceptional record, she nonetheless barely passed the House by a 78-67 vote. That vote had nothing to do with her record as a judge.
The judicial reappointment process is designed to ensure that a sitting judge has demonstrated over the previous eight years the qualifications deemed necessary to dispense justice. It should not be an occasion for the Legislature to make a political statement about the way the third branch of government performs its constitutional role.
If the Legislature has concerns, they should be addressed in the normal give and take that happens between the three branches of government; ironically, the kind of give and take exhibited here in the formation of the task force and rendering of a report that Chief Justice Rogers is in the process of considering and acting upon.
Using the reappointment process to promote a political point of view runs the risk of creating a very real sense in sitting judges that no matter how well they do their job, they can still be ousted by those with a political agenda. That is no way to run a government or a court system.
Kimberly Knox is president of the Connecticut Bar Association.