From pro se divorce plaintiffs to members of the media, about a dozen people voiced their concerns over the openness of judicial proceedings at the Judicial Reform Commission’s public hearing Tuesday in Hartford. Chris Powell, managing editor of the Journal Inquirer and legislative chairman of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, said completely open courts should be a right provided to the public through a constitutional amendment. However, when anyone makes this argument the judicial branch cries about the separation of powers. He said the separation of powers does not mean that the legislature and the governor cannot define the powers of the judiciary, since without their laws the judiciary would have no power at all. The place this has become most apparent in the courts is the Rules Committee of the Superior Court that writes the rules for the judicial branch. Traditionally these meetings are closed Powell said, so the judges can vote without being held to account for their performance by the public.
Judge Christine Keller disagreed with Powell. She said she believed the council, which she is a member, held public hearings and only went into executive session when personnel matters were being discussed. Vince Valvo, editor of the Hartford Business Journal and member of the Judicial Reform Commission, said when the media has asked to attend they’ve been categorically told the meetings are closed. “It’s terribly offensive to me as a citizen that you’re voting on these rules, yet we can’t find out about that,” Powell said. Norman Janes, president of the Connecticut Bar Association, opined that it was important for the rule making authority to remain with the judicial branch because its function is the adjudication of cases and shifting that authority to the legislature subjects the rules to the political process. Chris Kennedy of the Connecticut Civil Rights Council, said it’s been his personal experience that the judicial branch lacks accountability. He said when he took a complaint against a judge who acted inappropriately in his divorce case, the Judicial Review Council dismissed the complaint without even giving him a reason. When he called to ask why the woman who answered the phone said she didn’t know she just shreds the documents, Kennedy said. Alyssa Peterson, who was involved in two cases over the last two years, said the branch could improve its efficiency if it allowed interested parties to view the status of their cases as an outside check and balance. She said the current system relies too heavily on judges and clerks to uphold deadlines as the public involved in these cases get stuck with skyrocketing attorneys fees. The courts will “become a place for the wealthy,” if the inefficiencies continue, Peterson said. She said there should be a way for interested parties to remind the courts of filing deadlines. The commission will hold four more public hearings before making its final recommendations to Gov. M. Jodi Rell. And those who are unable to make any of the public hearings are invited to submit written testimony via email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The schedule of the last four hearings is as follows:August 7 Norwalk Norwalk Community College, East ForumAugust 10 East Haven East Haven Senior Center, Taylor AvenueAugust 15 Norwich Council Chambers, City Hall, 100 BroadwayAugust 17 Waterbury Chambers East, City Hall, 236 Grand Street Each hearing will begin at 7:00 p.m. Sign-up for public comment will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the same location, and speakers will be limited to five minutes of testimony.