Lawmakers reacted Friday to what they said was a chilling Connecticut Supreme Court decision that says the Judicial Branch has the right to deny public access to certain documents that track the history of legal cases. The court ruled 4-3 in favor of Judicial Branch officials and the Meriden Superior Court clerk, who had rejected requests by attorney Russell Collins in 2002 to view documents and related files stored in the branch’s computer system.The Superior Court clerk denied access to the records because redacting information would be “time consuming and burdensome,” according to the Supreme Court’s majority decision, which upholds the lower court’s decision.
Chief Justice William Sullivan, Justice Peter Zarella, Justice Richard Palmer, and Justice William Lavery, the Chief Court Administrator, voted to uphold the lower court’s decision to deny attorney Collins access to the name, address, birth date, next court date, and whether the defendant had an attorney or was incarcerated. Justices Flemming Norcott, Justice Joette Katz, and Justice David Borden wrote the dissenting opinion. Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, said the decision was a “substantial departure from the state’s policy on open government.” McDonald, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said decision has considerable First Amendment considerations and “causes me great concern” about the pending appointment of Zarella to chief justice. Gov. M. Jodi Rell nominated Zarella almost one month ago and just this week reprimanded the Judiciary Committee for not holding a public hearing on his appointment when the April 24th deadline is three days away. McDonald said the Judiciary will likely appoint Zarella after the legislative session ends on May 4. Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said, “In the future they could use this decision to say they don’t have to abide by our laws as members of the Judiciary branch.” But Lawlor said they will have to wait and see how the Judiciary Rules Committee hands down the policy to Superior Court clerks. McDonald opined “the court got it exactly wrong on closing the door on this type of information.” In addition this also underscores why the Judiciary Committee needs to question Zarella on his views on administrative policies of the judicial branch.Senate Minority Leader Louis DeLuca, R-Woodbury, said he didn’t understand what all the excitement was about. He said he doesn’t understand how the Democrats can be upset because Zarella “acted like a judge today.“As far as the ruling goes, Rep. Christopher Caruso, D-Bridgeport, said the legislatures Government Elections and Administration Committee would look at this issue during next year’s session. “There’s no reason a court shouldn’t be willing to give someone the information requested in the case.” He said it’s just one example of why his nomination needs to go through the process. Right now it seems like the Judiciary branch doesn’t “want to be accountable to anyone.”