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Remarks by Chief Justice Sullivan
Connecticut Bar Association
Annual Meeting June 7, 2004

Thank you, president Hogan, President-Elect Ury, members of the Connecticut Bar Association, ladies and gentlemen. I am pleased to be with you tonight. This association has always been a staunch supporter of the judicial branch and your efforts on our behalf are greatly appreciated. I look forward to this opportunity to give you a glimpse of the branch's year in review. It will come as no secret that it has been a challenging one for us. This year I would also like to share with you my vision of where the branch is headed on a couple of topics.

The first topic that may be of interest to all of you concerns the recent implementation of new attorney grievance rules that went into effect on January 1, 2004. As you may recall, a commission was formed for the purpose of developing new procedures to expedite valid grievances and to dismiss frivolous complaints. This commission, led by Justice Robert Berdon and comprised of twenty judges, attorneys, legislators and lay persons, worked long and hard to develop the new procedures and rules that will be beneficial to attorneys as well as to those clients who have valid grievances. In order to accomplish the goals of the commission, the new office of chief disciplinary counsel was established under the direction of the chief court administrator.

Chief Justice William J. Sullivan
Biography of Chief Justice William J. Sullivan

Judges' Corner
 


 

In addition to the new position of chief disciplinary counsel, a second new position, disciplinary counsel, was also created. I insisted that the chief disciplinary counsel have a minimum of 15 years in the private practice of law and that the disciplinary counsel have at least 7 years. The reason for this is we wanted to ensure that the people who hold these positions would have a full understanding of the problems that the lawyers face while practicing law in Connecticut today. I thought it was very important that the people that hold these positions have the experience of knowing what it means to meet a payroll on Friday night. I think with the appointment of attorney mark a. Dubois as chief disciplinary counsel and attorney Patricia King and attorney Frank Blando as disciplinary counsel we have achieved that goal.

While I will not attempt to address tonight every change that was made in an effort to streamline the process, I would like to highlight for you a few of the significant changes in the new rules.

First, the role of grievance counsel was expanded to provide assistance to complainants in understanding the grievance process and the reasons for dismissal of certain complaints.

The new rules also allow grievance panels to dismiss complaints if no probable cause exists that an attorney is guilty of misconduct, and the dismissal will be final unless the complaint alleges criminal conduct.

One of the most significant benefits to attorneys included in the new rules is the addition of a new procedure by which disciplinary counsel, acting in a prosecutorial role, may negotiate a disposition of the complaint with the respondent or the respondent's attorney, subject to the approval of the statewide grievance committee or a reviewing committee of the court. The inclusion of this provision, at the urging of many attorneys who appeared at the hearings held by the commission, will help to reduce the potential for delay and expense in the disposition of many complaints.

Another area where I see the need to take steps to effect some necessary changes concerns lawyer advertising. Frankly, the number of ads that exceed the boundaries of appropriate content is completely over the top in my opinion, and i am offended by the misleading images of bags of money being dropped by a truck and the boasting about "very aggressive representation" by certain lawyers.

Under U.S. Supreme Court and Connecticut case law, lawyer advertising is commercial speech which enjoys a limited measure of first amendment protection. While appropriate lawyer advertising serves a legitimate goal in providing the public with helpful information to ensure access to the services of attorneys, there is a need to balance that goal with the legitimate interest of protecting the public from misleading information that creates unjustified expectations. Additionally, the legal profession and our courts have a legitimate interest in upholding the public's confidence and respect for our system of justice, as well as preserving the dignity of the profession. Mere economic self-interest cannot trump the rights of the public to be free from advertising that amounts to misrepresentation.

I am aware that some states have procedures requiring all lawyer advertising to be submitted to an arm of the state bar association for review prior to dissemination of the ad. In Mississippi, for example, in cases where the proposed advertisement does not pass muster, dissemination may result in professional discipline.

Similarly, I believe that the Florida house of representatives recently gave preliminary approval to a sweeping measure that would crack down significantly on lawyer advertising. It seems clear to me that the offensive advertising which is of concern to me is not an isolated problem. I have, therefore, decided to form a committee to take a look at this problem and to determine whether our rules need to be revamped or better enforced, so that our noble profession is not demeaned by those lawyers whose judgment on this issue is inconsistent with upholding desirable standards of professionalism for the sake of the public interest. That committee will be formed in the near future.

Every year, when I speak to you, I mention the terms "professionalism" and "civility." last year I shared with you a story about the late attorney Ed Hennessey and the example he set in front of the Supreme Court in 2003 which exhibits these two traits to the maximum extent. I will not repeat the story for you tonight, but I am happy to report that the Connecticut bar association, through the efforts of many people and especially attorney Louis Pepe, have established the Edward F. Hennessey professionalism award, an award in the name of attorney Hennessey which will be given to an attorney for outstanding professionalism and civility in the practice of law. What I like about this award is that it will not be awarded annually and will only be given on an as-earned basis which, to me, means it will be a highly coveted and very prestigious award.

In a publication of the Virginia state bar entitled "senior lawyer news", I recently read an article concerning professionalism and civility from the judicial point of view, and i'd like to share a few quoted thoughts from that article for your consideration:

1. "Civility is really 'the golden rule': "do unto others as you would have others do unto you.'"

2. "Tardiness, rudeness, and lack of preparation are forms of incivility."

3. "Disrespectful, deliberately provocative behavior, and invectives should never be part of a professional's conduct."

Finally, on this topic, I would add that civility should not be a concept reserved only for the courtroom or applied only professionally. It should become a way of life again.

The next topic I'd like to address tonight has to do with some very serious concerns I recently raised in my remarks to the probate judges in Connecticut at their annual probate assembly. My concerns center on the fact that the probate court system is in a financial crisis, as the system has become too unwieldy to support itself.

In 2004, the probate court system's projected expenses will exceed its income for the first time that i am aware of. In 2002, the system had a surplus of $2 million, and in two short years, it now has an expected deficit of $579,000 for 2004. It is projected that in 2009 the deficit could be between $5 and $10 million. The disparity between the different courts, in terms of compensation and workload, has become so unbalanced that it may require legislative action to turn the problem around. The compensation levels for the judges in some of the smallest courts have become excessive in light of the fact that some work fewer than two days per week and have outside employment as well.

Furthermore, almost 50% of the courts handle less than 10% of the work of the entire system. With numbers like these, I think the only solution is to substantially reduce the number of probate courts in Connecticut.

Despite the financial crisis in the probate system, however, Judge Lawlor, the probate court administrator, and many others under his leadership, have devoted significant time and energy to bring about some very important new initiatives that will have a very beneficial effect for many of our most vulnerable citizens - the children of our state. For example, I have wholeheartedly endorsed the recent establishment of the first regional children's court in New Haven. This pilot program has, as its very worthy goal, the improvement of the probate court's handling of children's matters while retaining an atmosphere for the clients of approachability, accessibility and responsiveness. The legitimate need for continued funding of this initiative is only one example of why the probate court system must reign in its fiscal extravagance for the good of the people who need its services the most. In order for me to keep a close watch on this concern, i have appointed judge William Wollenberg to be my personal representative and liaison to the probate court administrator's office, and I have asked Judge Lawlor to present me with a workable plan for the probate court system by October 1, 2004. Hopefully, the judges of the probate courts will heed my concerns and will take the necessary steps to bridge their differences and to find solutions to these issues. What is little known is that we have a statute, Connecticut General Statutes 48a-83, which states that any shortfall in the operation of the probate court system has to be made up from the general fund. I do not think that the legislature will look kindly to paying large sums of money each year to support the probate court system. I am hopeful that this situation can be resolved in an amicable manner, with the agreement of a large majority of the probate judges.

Another issue I would like to speak with you about concerns the pay raises which the legislature approved for the judges in may. I would like to publicly thank the legislature for recognizing that the judges like other state employees deserve to have their salaries raised. The judges will receive raises of approximately $7,000 a year on January 1, 2005, January 1, 2006 and January 1, 2007, at which time their salaries will reach $146,780. I truly believe that this salary will allow the judicial branch to continue to attract outstanding candidates for judgeships from the ranks of practicing attorneys in this state.

Also, starting July 1, 2005, the state of Connecticut for the first time will have an attorney assistance program to help lawyers who have alcohol, drug and gambling problems. This program is long overdue as i believe 46 other states already have such a program. This program will be funded by a tax on attorneys. There is no other way that the legislature would have approved such a program since it did not believe that the state should fund a program to help a specific group of professionals. Frankly, I agree with the legislature because, if you did it for lawyers, you would have to do it for doctors, accountants, engineers, etc. In order to institute this program, $250,000 - $300,000 will be needed initially in my opinion. We hope to raise that sum by increasing the $75 fee that now goes to the client security fund. I have promised the client security fund that they will not have one cent less to pay people who have been cheated by dishonest lawyers. One-half of whatever increase is made to that $75 will go to the client security fund and one-half will go to support the attorney assistance program. At this time, it is unknown to what amount the $75 which we are paying will have to be increased in order to achieve that goal. My best estimate is that it will be raised to $100 or possibly to $110. Any raise will have to be approved by the judges of the Superior Court. I would like to ask at this time that the Connecticut bar association support such a raise because our profession badly needs this program.

In closing, I would like to applaud the members of this organization for your service to the people of our state in providing them with competent and expert representation. Your presence here tonight exemplifies your dedication to your profession and to your efforts to solidify good communication between the bench and the bar.

My door as Chief Justice is always open to the bar for whatever help and support I can provide. I appreciate your kind attention this evening.
 

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