Judiciary Committee Gives Chief Justice A Thumbs Up
Members of the Judiciary Committee gave Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers a thumbs up Saturday morning after roughly six hours of public testimony both for and against the state’s top judge.
The committee overwhelmingly approved Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s renomination of Rogers for a second eight-year term. She was appointed to the position by former Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell.
Rogers said at her confirmation hearing Friday that she has been successful in promoting transparency, access to justice and diversity in the Connecticut court system. She cited the accessibility of court documents online, increased availability of pro bono services, enhanced resources for those who choose to represent themselves, and a move toward an individual calendaring system so that one judge can hear an entire civil case from start to finish.
She said she plans to extend individual calendaring to certain family court cases through a pilot program beginning in September.
Most committee members were generous in their compliments about Rogers’ record of service as the judicial branch’s administrative head.
But a public hearing on the confirmation showed there are some who think the family court system is broken and that Rogers has missed her chance to fix it.
Those testifying against Rogers’ nomination included Marisa Ringel, a divorced Fairfield mother who said she has been representing herself in the family court system for 10 years. She said the system is focused on money instead of the families it is designed to protect.
Many of the court’s flaws, according to family advocates like Ringel, revolve around the use of the “guardian ad litem,” which is the person the court appoints to represent the best interests of a child in a divorce or parental-rights case.
“In the Connecticut divorce industry, if a judge or counsel refers a GAL (Guardian Ad Litem) to be appointed on a matter, that judge or counselor is handing that GAL a cash value. When a GAL refers an evaluator or mental health professional and the judge makes it into an order, well, what really happened is that a cash value transaction is taking place. Gavel becomes cash register. Judge becomes broker,” she said.
Ringel’s testimony also addressed what she believes is a lack of consistency in the way the law is applied by judges in the family court system. When it comes to justice, she said “you are either going to get it or not depending on who you get assigned to stand in front of.”
For that reason, she objected to Rogers’ efforts to work toward individual calendaring in the family cases. She said that is not reform; it’s “a nightmare for parents stuck with biased, inept judges.”
Ringel’s view of the system as one driven by money was also articulated by Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, D-Hartford, during the committee’s questioning of Rogers before the public hearing . Gonzalez introduced a bill this session to further reform the family court system. Her lengthy examination of the chief justice revealed a profound sense of disappointment with Rogers’ commitment to protecting those in crisis who are going through the family court system.
“It’s about money. This is a $50 billion industry,” she said to the applause of family advocates present in the room.
The outburst from the gallery resulted in a stern reprimand from committee chairman Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford. “l’m going to ask you not to clap, not shout, not to hoot and holler. Not to groan, not to make demonstrations behind the chief justice of the Supreme Court,” he said.
Rogers told the committee she is responsive to those complaints. She pointed to the law she helped craft that went into effect last year involving guardian ad litems.
She said the law was an effort to address the cost of guardian ad litems by giving judges more of an oversight role when it comes to fee structure. The law also specifies that if a parent is unable to pay the fee, the court is prohibited from using a child’s college savings fund or the family’s credit card accounts. In contentious cases the current law allows the parties to choose a guardian ad litem from a list of 15 presented by the court.
In addition, the law gives parents standing to file a motion to remove a guardian ad litem or attorney for the minor children, but it does not cap the amount a guardian ad litem would be able to charge.
Rogers said she didn’t think the law went far enough, so she also instituted a pilot program that provides family relations officers to help parents mediate disputes free of charge.
Public hearing testimony in favor of Rogers’ nomination came from the offices of both the public defender and the chief state’s attorney, the Connecticut Bar Association, several universities, and organizations like Connecticut Legal Services, Greater Hartford Legal Aid, New Haven Legal Assistance Association, Pro Bono Partnership, Inc., and the Journal Inquirer.
Opposition came from parents and grandparents who recounted stories of estrangement, financial ruin, threats of jail time for nonpayment of guardian ad litem fees, conflicts of interest, and a host of other problems stemming from the family court system.
The parade of testimony kept coming for more than six hours.
Numerous people offered testimony against Rogers’ confirmation based on concerns about foreclosure proceedings and conflicts of interest on a committee she formed to review foreclosure practices in the judicial branch. But the family court advocates were the most vocal and passionate.
Maureen Martowska, of Massachusetts, recounted her son’s difficult journey through the Connecticut family court system. Fees of $250 per hour for a guardian ad litem, which neither her son or his ex-wife could afford, were passed on to the grandparents. Martowska has not seen her granddaughter in two years.
The devastation is emotional, financial and far reaching, Martowska said: “It’s not just the parents. It’s the grandparents, the aunts, the uncles, the cousins. It has a ripple effect beyond what you can imagine. We need substantive and meaningful and timely changes.”