A panel appointed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell to examine the openness and accountability of Connecticut’s judicial branch plans to hold hearings in five cities in August to gather public comments before drafting recommendations for reform of the state’s courts. The hearings will be followed by a final session for public comment held in September before the panel adopts its final recommendations to the governor, members decided Wednesday.
In a memo presented to the panel and in comments made to the panel during Wednesday’s meeting, member Mitchell Pearlman said the commission “should keep in mind all the ‘customers’ of the judicial branch, and should seek input from the broadest possible spectrum of people.” Pearlman, a lawyer and former executive director of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, recommended the statewide hearings, noting that a public comment period held only by email or Internet might be inaccessible to the state’s poor. Judge Christine Keller, an administrative judge in Hartford and member of the panel asked if it was necessary to hold the hearings early, before the panel has formed its recommendations rather than later when it could present the recommendations for comment. In response, Pearlman emphasized the need for more muscular input by the public into the formation of the recommendations. In approving Pearlman’s plan Wednesday, some members appeared to defer to his years of immersion in the trenches of public opinion as a land they knew not. After Wednesday’s meeting, Keller and panelist Patricia Harleston, a Hartford Superior Court judge, said that despite confidentiality rules for many types of information and room for improvement, they did not think the courts lacked transparency or accessibility. The judicial branch and the governor both established task forces in May that are laboring under September deadlines to systematically review court rules and customs, state statutes and case law that limit the public’s right to view documents or access hearings and meetings in the judicial branch. The panels were hastily formed after press reports about a letter acting Chief Justice David Borden delivered to the legislature’s Judiciary Committee in April revealing that former Chief Justice William Sullivan secretly withheld public release of a ruling of the court in order to facilitate the confirmation of Justice Peter Zarella to succeed him. The 4-3 ruling in the case, with Zarella voting with the majority, denied a local lawyer access to the criminal and infractions dockets in Meriden Superior Court. Rell later withdrew her nomination of Zarella and remains undecided on his renomination.Sullivan said he didn’t see anything wrong in delaying publication of the opinion, a statement that drew condemnatory comments from a fellow judge, Rell and others, according to media reports. The lists of prohibitions to public access are long. Assigned the task of reviewing the statutes that affect access to civil cases and to information of state agencies in general in Connecticut, panel member William Fish, a lawyer with Tyler Cooper & Alcorn who practices First Amendment and corporate law, declared in a memo presented to the panel on Wednesday that the statutes affecting access to civil proceedings “are scattered throughout the General Statutes, are not indexed in any meaningful way, and are difficult to locate.” He cautioned that the list he presented “may not be complete, despite our efforts.” Fish and others carved out areas to review and report on and his was but one. The commission received reports on criminal and administrative statutes and practices as well. The commission may recommend any changes necessary, including changes in court practice, state statute and the Connecticut Constitution. The panel will scatter the public hearings geographically and announce the exact dates and locations through the governor’s office and press releases.