Before accepting a 30-day unpaid suspension from the bench Wednesday, Superior Court Judge E. Curtissa Cofield called a minister, a former drug addict, a lawyer, and a former state representative to testify on her behalf.
Cofield appeared before the Judicial Review Council for allowing child-protection cases involving 10 foster children to languish more than 120-days. It’s the second time she’s appeared before the council since she was appointed to the bench in 1991 by former Gov. Lowell P. Weicker. The first time she was called, Cofield was suspended for 240 business days following a drunken-driving incident in 2008.
She said she spent most of those 240 days in bed. That incident came after the death of her father and a subsequent fire that engulfed her family home in New Haven that same year.
“In no way is this an excuse,” Cofield told the Judicial Review Council. “It’s simply an explanation of life events.”
When she returned to the bench she was transferred from criminal court to juvenile court.
There was little mention of the delayed rulings which brought her before the Judicial Review Council. Earlier this year, Department of Children and Families Commissioner Joette Katz sought an appellate order against Cofield in order to get her to rule in the four cases involving the 10 foster children. Katz was seeking to have the parental rights terminated in all of the cases.
During the delay, the children could not be adopted and the foster families were left wondering what would happen to the children whom they thought of as their own, according to an explanation of the cases offered by the Judicial Review Council on Wednesday.
“It was causing stress and difficulty for these children,” Scott Murphy, executive director for the Judicial Review Council, said.
Cofield allowed the cases to languish for more than a year in some instances. She said she admitted to the charge “but with an explanation.”
Judicial Review Council Chairman Wayne R. Keeney said that by agreeing to the suspension she was giving up her right to a defense.
“Yes, but not an explanation,” Cofield insisted.
Cofield then had people who testified on her behalf address the council. Following that, she made her own remarks and detailed her upbringing in North Carolina and the segregated south, her transition to adulthood, involvement in community organizations, law school, and then her career as the first African-American woman appointed to the bench.
Under the law, a judge has 120 days to rule on a case. But Ramona Mercado-Espinoza, who was a public defender in Hartford at the same time as Cofield was a prosecutor, said Cofield isn’t the only judge guilty of failing to rule in a timely manner on a case.
She said she doesn’t know how many other judges have been brought before the Judicial Review Council for failing to rule in the 120-day period, but “she is not the only judge who is culpable to this.”
Former State Rep. Bill Dyson, who worked with Cofield at United Newhallville when she first arrived in New Haven, testified on her behalf but told the panel that she has to work at “redemption.”
“As the expression goes, you suck it up,” Dyson said.
“Her life has been reaching out and helping others,” he added. “And that will not end here today.”
The Rev. Mike Morwaski of First Cathedral in Bloomfield said the panel should consider that she waited to rule on these cases for the benefit of the children.
“She doesn’t want to make a rash decision,” Morwaski said. “I just wanted you to take that into consideration.”
It’s rare for the Judicial Review Council to punish a sitting judge. The council has held 12 such hearings, including Cofield’s first, since 1989.
Cofield was joined at the hearing by her 89-year-old mother, one of her daughters, and about two dozen supporters.
She said brighter days are ahead for her and “I don’t intend to remain in the darkness.”
Cofield was represented by Hubert Santos, the well-known and respected defense attorney who gave Cofield one of her first jobs as an assistant corporation counsel in the city of Hartford.
Judges are renominated every eight years and Cofield’s term expires in 2015.
Click here to watch the video of the hearing.