Courtesy of CT-N
Judge Patrick Carroll (Courtesy of CT-N)

A Connecticut attorney claims in a federal lawsuit that the state Judicial Branch is violating the constitutional rights of three men with pending criminal cases because it has been unable to operate remotely through the pandemic.

The lawsuit was filed Friday against Patrick Carroll III, chief court administrator for the Judicial Branch.

“The Connecticut Judicial Branch was not adequately prepared to address a pandemic or prolonged closure,” the complaint filed by Attorney Robert Berke states.

Berke filed the lawsuit on behalf of Shelton lawyer James Ruane and three men with pending criminal matters.

A spokeswoman for the Judicial Branch said Friday that the branch was unable to comment on pending litigation.

According to the complaint, in the 13 weeks since Gov. Ned Lamont declared a state of emergency, the Judicial Department has conducted limited business other than arraignments. The Judicial Branch “has not fulfilled his statutory charge of ensuring the prompt disposition of cases and the proper administration of judicial business,” Berke wrote.

The criminal matters the courts have been handling since March 10 include criminal arraignments of defendants held in lieu of bond and all arraignments involving domestic violence cases, juvenile detention hearings, family orders of relief from abuse, civil protection orders, ex-parte motions, orders of temporary custody, termination of parental rights, domestic violence victim notification. The civil courts have already started holding pre-trial and status conferences remotely.

Several states, including New Jersey, California, Alaska, North Dakota, Texas, Florida, New York and Massachusetts have all been conducting criminal matters by video, according to the complaint.

In criminal matters, the Connecticut Judicial Branch does not permit e-filings of motions or documents like it does in civil matters. It only allows the viewing of the name, docket number charges, and next court appearance.

“The differentiation of judicial branch policies toward criminal and civil matters has no rational basis,” the lawsuit states.

One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit was unable to challenge a protective order; another has been held on bond and unable to get a hearing because none of the matters he’s involved with are “priority one” matters as defined by the branch.

The third had a hearing in a habeas matter scheduled for April 3 and has been unable to get it rescheduled. 

“The cancellation of his habeas trial exceeded the state constitutional authority of the trial court or Defendant Chief Court Administrator, as habeas matters may only be suspended by the legislature, and resulted in the deprivation of his substantive due process rights,” the complaint states.

Defense attorneys have grown increasingly frustrated with the Judicial Branch over the mounting backlog and the toll this is taking on defendants, especially those being held in custody.

Seven Connecticut inmates have died from COVID-19 and hundreds more have tested positive.