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Remarks by Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers
CBA Bench/Bar Awards Luncheon
June 9, 2008

 

Good afternoon. I want to first thank you for inviting me back to speak at this yearís annual meeting. It has been a full year -- for both the courts and the CBA -- and I am delighted to have the opportunity to address you. Today, I want to specifically recognize you for your support of the Judicial Branch throughout the last year. I also want to mention how fortunate you are to have had the leadership of Attorney Bill Prout, Jr. over the past year. So, to all of you and Bill, thank you for all that you have done to enhance our state court system.

You, as a dedicated and committed group of attorneys, have been ardent and vocal supporters in the area of educating the public about the rule of law, and the bench is tremendously appreciative of these efforts. This principle is vital, and it is essential that the public understand precisely what is at stake when our constitutional obligation to apply the rule of law is under attack.
 

 
Some people, over the past few years, have attached negative connotations to the phrase ďjudicial independence,Ē to the effect that it is nothing more than an invitation to run amok from the bench. I strongly disagree with that interpretation. Instead, the concept of judicial independence is the need for judges to be free from improper influence, which includes political or special interests or popular public sentiment. It protects the access of all citizens to fair and impartial courts. Simply put, judicial independence is your independence, both as attorneys who practice in our courts and as members of the public who utilize the judicial system.

When we become judges, we take an oath to uphold the Constitution. Put another way, this is our promise to your clients -- that when they walk into a State of Connecticut courtroom, they will come before a fair and neutral judge, who will make his or her ruling based on the law, rather than public opinion, and regardless of what pressure may be brought to bear. This is the challenge that our judges face every day when they walk into a courtroom. I think you would agree that they perform this function admirably and with a great deal of courage. The most popular, the wealthiest, the loudest or the most powerful has no place in our courtrooms, and Connecticutís judges take seriously their role to ensure that all sides will be heard before making a reasoned and fair decision based on the law.

When judges do the right thing under the law, however, we often make someone angry. And let me assure you, in the no-holds-barred era of the Internet soapbox, the feedback -- often anonymous -- can be brutal. As you know, we as judges cannot, under our Code of Judicial Ethics, comment about our cases. That is why it is so essential that the bar step up and speak up to make sure that the public understands the need for an independent judiciary that will apply the rule of law as opposed to making the popular or less controversial decision.

You have done exactly that and, as you hopefully continue to do so in the future, I would ask you to consider the following. Only with an independent judiciary will you have the rule of law and only with an accountable judiciary will we have the respect and support of the residents we serve, so that we may maintain our independence to uphold the rule of law. None of these three components -- rule of law, accountability or judicial independence -- survives without the other two.

I also want to stress that judicial independence is not lack of accountability. In fact, our judges are held accountable in many different and significant ways. With regard to our decisions, we are strictly accountable to the law -- the common law, the statutory law and the constitution. This accountability is further reflected in the publishing of our decisions to the public, our explaining in open courtrooms, our reasoning in cases, and an appellate procedure that reviews whether we, as judges, have in fact adhered to the law. All of this accountability to the law is what helps to make our legal system one of the fairest and most enduring in the world. And, while criticism of a decision by the public is also appropriate, personal attacks on a judge questioning their suitability to remain as a judge where they have adhered to the rule of law is a direct threat to judicial independence. The last thing that you as lawyers and the public want are timid decision makers who are looking over their shoulders.

We are also accountable with regard to how we handle our administrative and institutional responsibilities -- such as case management, our treatment of people who use the system, and our adherence to the Code of Judicial Ethics. Our conduct on the bench is subject to review by the Judicial Review Council and a reappointment process every eight years that involves the other branches of government. Specifically, judges are reviewed by the Judicial Selection Commission, nominated by the Governor and subject to approval by the General Assembly.

I believe, as well, that openness goes hand in hand with accountability. We donít have armies to enforce our decisions. We donít even have the power of the purse. All we have is the publicís faith that we will follow the rule of law. And the only way that they know that this is occurring is through an open and transparent court system.

Accountability and transparency, in fact, are central themes of one of the most ambitious projects undertaken by the Judicial Branch in the last year.

Last summer, I appointed 42 talented individuals to serve on the newly established Public Service & Trust Commission, which is chaired by Judge Alexandra DiPentima and which is made up of lawyers, judges, Judicial Branch employees, advocacy groups and members of the public and media. The commission was charged with creating a strategic plan that will guide the Judicial Branch in the upcoming years. Over the past year, the commission has examined public perceptions of our state court system; conducted scientifically valid opinion research to determine the level of satisfaction of people who use the court system; held public hearings to obtain input; and conducted focus groups of lawyers, judges, court personnel and other members of the public who are involved with the court system. These focus groups identified trends that will affect the courts, discussed the impact these trends will have and developed effective strategies to address the trends.

The commission held 93 focus groups throughout the state involving well over a thousand participants. Many of you attended one or more, and I want to thank each and every one of you for your input. Your comments were insightful, practical and representative of your collective commitment to ensuring that our courts operate as effectively and efficiently as possible.

The focus groups of people external to the branch were also asked what they need and valued in our court system. It is interesting to note that the values that were identified as most important were fairness, impartiality, equal treatment, respect, professionalism and adherence to the rules. In other words, people who use the courts want to know that they have an impartial judge who provides them with an even playing field and who acts fairly and in accordance with the law. They also want a system that demonstrates professionalism and respect.

Of course, itís one thing to collect all of this information; itís another to develop measurable outcome goals and strategies. To accomplish this, the commission broke into five committees and developed specific strategies and activities to achieve each of the goals.

The commission unanimously approved this initial phase of the plan, and I currently am reviewing its work. I can tell you that what Iíve seen so far is not only impressive, it is little short of amazing.

Whatís next? I anticipate that implementation of action steps to accomplish the planís goals will start this summer. Preliminarily, it appears that 200 to 300 action steps will be occurring.

To give you an example of the types of steps I am talking about, we have already begun to deal with some of the identified issues involving entry into courthouses which, of course, is an individual's first introduction to the judicial process. All courthouses are now open at 8:30 a.m. so people do not have to wait outside in the weather. Procedures have been put in place that will speed up security checks for attorneys at metal detectors. For instance, if you have your ID badge showing you are an attorney, you will not have to remove items of clothing. In addition, new judicial marshal classes are receiving training on dealing politely and efficiently with the public as they come through the doors. Conference rooms will now be unlocked during lunch hours and before court opens. And finally, a rule will be submitted to the judges for approval in June that will allow attorneys and the public to bring camera phones into the courthouse. This only makes sense. First, try finding a cell phone without a camera these days. More importantly, however, the marshals checked in and held 290,000 camera cell phones last year. Obviously, this procedure severely delayed the time it took for these individuals -- and everyone standing behind them -- to enter the courthouse.

These are but a very few of the changes that I expect to be made as a direct result of your input into our strategic plan. I want to again thank you for all that you have done, from participating in the focus groups to speaking to school groups about the rule of law, to taking the time to explain to your client why a judge ruled as he or she did. Every time you educate someone about our court system, it makes a difference. Someone may still dislike the result but, if they understand that the system worked, then we have made progress. I want to thank you again for the opportunity to address you, and for all of the fine work you do on behalf of the people we serve.
 

 

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