Chief Justice Richard Robinson and O’Donovan Murphy director of Judicial Marshal Services Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Two branches of state government engaged in a philosophical debate Wednesday morning over how best to protect Connecticut judges from a rising number of threats and incidents of intimidation.

Chief Justice Richard Robinson testified during a hearing of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee in support of a bill that would, among other things, create a new Class C felony for intimidating a judge or a family support magistrate in an effort to influence a court ruling.

Robinson told legislators that unprecedented levels of threats necessitated the change. Many of these threats stemmed from civil cases or family court matters, he said.  

“These are judges who have been experiencing an increase in threats like I haven’t seen since the time I’ve taken the bench,” Robinson said. The intimidation has occurred nationwide, he said. “We’ve had some murders of judges. We’ve had some bomb threats. We’ve had guns. We’ve had people hinting that other people should take action.”

According to statistics from the Judicial Marshal Services, Connecticut judges have received nearly 80 threats since 2016. Last year was the worst of those years with17 threats directed at judges. During one recent incident a defendant appeared twice outside a judge’s house and left messages on their work phone.

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose

Robinson argued that a judiciary could only fulfill its constitutional obligation if its judges were free to make difficult decisions without fear of physical violence.

However, legislators from both parties were skeptical of the proposal to create a new felony. Connecticut already has a misdemeanor threatening statute under which someone could be charged for threatening a judge. Rep. Steve Stafstrom, a lawyer and Bridgeport Democrat who co-chairs the committee, said that more severe charges often result in fewer prosecutions.

“I’m not unsympathetic to the ask, I’m really not,” Stafstrom said. “Maybe there should be a broader conversation about, you know, threatening the governor, threatening the legislature, whatever. That’s a valid conversation this legislature could have if it wanted to… But going from the A misdemeanor currently, skipping the D felony altogether and going straight to the C felony, I think is where I get a little — are we going too big, too fast?”

Robinson said he believed that law enforcement officials were wary of charging offenders under the current law and expected the specificity of the proposed new charge to ease their concerns.

Rep. Pat Callahan told Robinson that he was sympathetic to the issues as well. The New Fairfield Republican’s father, Robert Callahan, was Connecticut’s chief justice from 1996 to 1999. Callahan said his family was threatened when he was a child. 

“As a kid I was driven to school by the police because of threats,” Callahan said. 

However, Callahan said lawmakers were also frequently threatened and he had personally been subjected to threats as a football officiant. Two years ago a legislator filed a bill in the Judiciary Committee that would have hiked penalties for threatening sports officials. It was never raised for a public hearing. 

Callahan said he had also been threatened when he worked as a probation officer. He asked Robinson where the chief justice would stop carving out special considerations. 

“Having been threatened as a family member of a judge and having been threatened in other capacities, where do we draw the line?” Callahan said. 

With judges, Robinson answered, specifically judges who had been threatened in relation to a ruling. 

“We should be able to make [decisions] in a way that is threat-free. Will that happen? No. There’s things less than threats and we’ll take all that,” Robinson said. “But when it comes to threatening your life because of a decision you’ve made, I think that’s a place to draw the line.”

Other legislators questioned why the same enhanced penalty should not be applied to other court officers like lawyers or attorneys ad litem assigned to represent children.  

“The same risks, the same threats are directed on a daily basis against virtually every other person in the courtroom,” Rep. Doug Dubitsky, a lawyer and Republican from Chaplin, said. 

As chief justice, Robinson said he sought to protect everyone who enters Connecticut courthouses, not just judges. However, judges had an additional obligation to protect the rule of law. 

Robinson said he believed the law to be narrowly tailored. In some places, he would have liked it to go further and apply to the family members of judges. 

“We have judges whose families are threatened too,” Robinson said. “We’re not asking for that. Do I want that? I would love to have that… My wife has been subject to some really horrendous stuff, you probably heard about that. I’m not asking for that protection. I’m going to do my best to protect her myself.”