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OP-ED | In Defense of Family Court Judges

by Kimberly A. Knox | Mar 5, 2014 5:34pm
(6) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Courts, Legal, Opinion

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.

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(6) Comments

posted by: Fisherman | March 5, 2014  6:49pm

Don’t be naïve, Councilor Knox.

I watched the Task Force’s January 9, 2014 Public Hearing, where much of the testimony brought back vivid memories of my sister’s divorce hearing seven years ago; particularly the injustices, collusion and deficiencies I observed in our state’s Family Court System.

I was originally drawn in her divorce when both my sister and her (then) husband told me stories which I found difficult to believe; starting with a judge, who forever delayed implementing child support funding in accordance with the state’s published guidelines, until he was finally embarrassed into doing so by me.

For the benefit of the children involved in a divorce, this basic level of financial support should be granted to the parent who will be housing the children during the divorce immediately and without exception. 

Then, my sister and her (then) husband repeatedly communicated to the judge that they did not want a GAL to participate. Not only did this judge appoint a very expensive GAL; he appointed one who had business relationships with one of the attorneys involved. The GAL was more than mischievous and untrustworthy; she caused far more harm to my niece and nephews than good. I personally met with her on two occasions; and during these meeting she made it abundantly clear that she alone would be making all decisions regarding the future placement and visitation schedules for these children. Clearly exceeding all reasonable limits of authority, there was no means to rein this GAL back-in.  This was not an inexperienced GAL either; research indicated that she had many years of “experience and training”; and many, many complaints filed against her.

Unless at least one parent supports the decision to engage the services of a GAL, no judge should mandate the use of one; and a means must be implemented to replace overzealous GAL’s.

Being an elected official, what was perhaps most egregious was, the frequent collusion between the attorneys involved, the GAL and on one occasion, the judge; who would meet for drinks on Thursday evenings at taverns in Glastonbury and West Hartford. I personally observed the attorneys and the GAL meet at these establishments on two occasions during the months that the divorce was on-going (and all parties admitted to being present on these occasions). It soon became clear to me that during these meetings ex-parte communications were taking place which affected both the parents and the children. 

Unless the marriage partners provide their consent in writing, there should be no ex-parte communications regarding the children, their custody or their care outside of the courthouse.

Until these issues are resolved, I encourage anyone who has had to go through this ordeal to testify. It isn’t political; its bad law and bad GAL’s who cause the problem. It needs to be fixed sooner, rather than later.

posted by: Marisa Ringel | March 5, 2014  10:46pm

Kimberly Knox you are not reporting on the whole picture. You are reporting from a family court insider‘s point of view; an insider that doesn‘t seem to care about coming out on the street level and putting your ear to ground to listen as to what is truly going on in this Judge‘s courthouse and several others in this state. There is a very good reason this Judge was nearly NOT reappointed. If you interviewed the many litigants that stood before her and reported in a more balanced fashion you would have had a better impact on helping your readers understand what the core issues really are. Right now your words represent more of the same from a small group of insiders controlling courthouses to the detriment of the public. The public is loosing our trust in the family court of Connecticut. It is from consistently bad rulings coming down from Judges such as The Honorable Judge Olear that cause this distrust to grow. Having the public distrust our judicial branch is not a stable place for Connecticut. The reason why this Judge has such a good record on paper is because litigants are not permitted to submit reviews on Judges and most of them are too fearful of retaliation to submit a complaint to the Judiciary Review Board. Even those members of the public that have found the courage to submit a complaint have those documents dropped in the process without any serious review of them going on. This is a VERY SERIOUS issue for the state of Connecticut. Reporting as yours going on is going to make things worse not better. I am sure I will not be the last to comment on this highly controversial topic that pits family court insiders against the public instead of where it should be which is in a place where we can have confidence the family court will help in resolving disputes. We would like the helpful service from these Judges that they are paid with our tax dollars to generate. instead, what we have currently; is a place where family court disputes are exacerbated and people coming there for help actually come out more harmed than the harm they went in with. Just because someone is a Judge does not mean that they are beyond getting fired like the rest of us if we do not perform our job to the job description set forth. What are we supposed to not ask more from our Judges and government? There are many good Judges doing a fantastic job. Judge John Turner, Judge Heidi Winslow. But there are others that over and over again you hear members of the public suffering over their rulings. It‘s the same handful of names of Judges that pop up whenever we are hearing from a traumatized party. Some of these Judges are not fair. And that is not fair to the public to be force to stand before them.

The risk is coming from people maintaining that the status quo is fine and the way it should continue. I will guarantee if things do not change that this crisis will grow deeper. That is the real risk here not what you claim.

posted by: JamesBronsdon | March 6, 2014  9:22am

Though I have chosen to forget it and move on, my experiences with family court were much like Fisherman’s and Marisa’s. The arrangements among the money players in the family court system are far too cozy and self-serving.

posted by: Historian | March 6, 2014  9:46am

Divorce, etc is a gangster operation where vultures rule and that includes the judges. An incestuous system whose operators sit high on wooden benches, wearing the black robes of judgement dispensing favors, delays and heartbrake to Ct citizens under the fairy tale image of King Soloman’s wisdom. 
  It is not justice but a frozen process designed to protect and enrich it’s lead actors fed by the personal assets of petitioners.

posted by: and 1 | March 7, 2014  7:43pm

I find I am both interested in this article and disappointed it is the President of the Connecticut Bar Association who is writing it.
My question is: What attorney in this state really wants to risk a critique of the Judicial Branch?
And it’s not the judges any attorney really fears—it’s the administrators who are there and never, ever examined as is the case with judges. The same administrators who are the top of the chain with regard to attorney grievance procedures in this state and who if angered can take down a good judge—just ask the current Attorney Carmen Lopez what happens to a judge who dares stand up to the Branch.
Ahhh and the woman who was terminated because she asked her attorney about her responsibility to report an Assistant AG for having changed a judge’s order—yes she got her job back but all was quiet.
There is not one attorney in this state who can afford to say anything bad about the Judicial Branch—so perhaps next time there should be a report from someone who can better afford to be objective.

posted by: JamesBronsdon | March 16, 2014  8:47pm

Amen to that, and 1