A Friday judicial nomination hearing demonstrated lawyers’ obligation to represent their clients, regardless of their personal positions.
An email circulated at the judicial nomination hearing of former Stamford Deputy Corporation Counsel Sybil Richards offered insight into the advice she gave the city’s Board of Education over a controversial lease she negotiated.
In an Aug. 10, 2011 email, Richards advised the Board of Education against entering into a lease in which a local church placed restrictions on what could be said in a public school environment. The city moved forward on the lease in spite of her objections.
The email was discussed during the Judiciary Committee’s review of Richards’ nomination to the Superior Court, after which she was unanimously approved.
At issue was the city’s proposed lease with the St. Clement’s Parish Corporation. The public school system is attempting to lease instructional space from the parish for students from the district. The language of the contract restricts what can be said and taught in the church premises.
Richards negotiated the lease on behalf of the board and, according to the email, asked the church’s attorney if the parish would accept the deletion of certain provisions. The church did not. Richards wrote that she attempted to revise the language of certain clauses but still advised against the contract.
“Given the onerous, rigid and restrictive nature of these clauses, it is highly likely that these clauses will be considered to be objectionable if and when a lease is presented to the three boards for approval,” she wrote to the city’s director of student support services.
Richards said clauses that forbid speech or action contrary to the Roman Catholic moral doctrine and force city employees to take certain church training programs “raise the specter of Constitutional challenges, collective bargaining grievances and increase the city’s exposure to liability.”
On Friday, Richards told the committee she could not discuss advice she may have given to the city because of attorney client privilege. But she said the board also engaged the services of an outside law firm.
That outside law firm, Shipman & Goodwin, told the board of education that the lease wouldn’t leave it or the city with significant legal exposure.
“Briefly, our review determined that execution of the lease will not result in significant legal exposure for the board. The lease explicitly protects the Constitutional rights of the student and teachers who will participate,” the review said.
The firm said the board retains the authority to teach the family planning programs the lease forbids at a different facility.
Judiciary Committee Co-Chairman Sen. Eric Coleman said he had experience working as a town attorney and recalled it was not uncommon for the town to seek outside advice when his advice wasn’t what they wanted to hear.
“When I gave an opinion that was consistent with what the board or agency wanted to do, I was fine. When I gave an opinion that was contrary to what they wanted to do it seemed like eventually they would seek a second opinion from somebody not connected with the town,” he said.
Coleman said typically the second opinion would supersede his. It appears that has been the case in Stamford. While the city’s board of representatives has tabled the lease for the time being, the church building is already being used for class space.
Several lawmakers noted that Richards’ work on the lease as a lawyer is not indicative of her support of its content.
Rep. Arthur O’Neill, R- Southbury, said likely every judge on the bench has at some point “had clients who have asked them to put things in contracts, represent a particular position on an issue which may or may not reflect their view, but as their attorney, it’s your obligation.”
O’Neill pointed to defense lawyers, who sometimes have to represent people who have actually committed a crime.
“That doesn’t mean they believe in crime or selling drugs or committing violent acts or any of that stuff,” he said.
Richards agreed that lawyers should zealously represent their clients.
“That was something that I was charged with doing when I was an attorney for the city of Stamford. I made sure that every single day that I tried to faithfully execute my duties as such regardless of my personal opinions and regardless of my personal positions,” she said.
Richards was an interim appointment and is currently sitting on the bench. In addition to Richards, the committee re-approved six other judges to the Superior Court and eight trial judge referees for eight-year terms.