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Testimony of Judge Robert C. Leuba, Chief Court Administrator

Program Review and Investigations
Committee Public Hearing
October 10, 2000

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Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today to talk about an issue that is extremely important to the Judicial Branch – the appointment and reappointment of judges.

I would like to begin by stating that we should all be proud of our state’s current procedure for selecting and re-appointing judges – it is one of the best in the country. All one has to do to appreciate the benefits of our system is to look to the recent experiences of our neighboring States.

Connecticut’s judges deal with over 700,000 cases each year with very little controversy. It is apparent that our system’s balance of judicial independence and judicial responsibility ensures the quality of the bench. The Connecticut judicial system is held up as an example of what others should strive for, and we are regularly consulted by other states and countries for advice.

The single most important aspect of our current system is the concept of judicial independence. Judicial independence is critical to the functioning of any democracy – as evidenced by its incorporation into the structure of our nation’s government established by the federal constitution. The concept of judicial independence is one of the key factors that distinguishes our system of government from others around the world. It protects the weak from the powerful; the minority from the majority; the poor from the rich; yes, even the citizens from excesses of government.

What does the concept of judicial independence mean? It surely includes the ability and duty of a judge to decide each case according to an objective evaluation and application of the law, without the influence of outside factors. The citizens of our State rightly expect that in every case decided by a court.

Connecticut’s method of appointing and re-appointing judges – screening of applicants by an independent commission, nomination by the governor and confirmation by the General Assembly builds in a method of merit selection and accountability. This closely mirrors the system for appointing judges to the federal courts – with the exception that federal judges are appointed for life. It is hard to imagine the same level of judicial independence in a system where judges are elected. Judges should not be afraid of the effect an unpopular but legally sound decision might have on their re-election – or reappointment. This would create a temptation for a judge to make a decision based on how it would be perceived by those in power from time to time without regard for the law. Judges are particularly vulnerable at reappointment because the threat of returning to private law practice is a real concern for people who have left behind their relationships and been away for eight years.

The concept of judicial independence is supported by our statutes on the reappointment of judges. Section 51-44a of the General Statutes, regarding evaluation by the Judicial Selection Commission of judges for reappointment, states that, "There shall be a presumption that each incumbent judge who seeks reappointment to the same court qualifies for retention in judicial office."

Let me turn now to more specifics about the Judicial Branch’s role in maintaining a well-qualified judiciary. I would like to first point out that the Judicial Branch does not participate in any way in the selection or appointment of new judges. We do, however, work with the Legislative and Executive Branches during the re-appointment process. And we do operate a judicial performance evaluation program for current Superior Court judges.

The Connecticut Judicial Performance Evaluation Program has been recognized throughout the country as being on the cutting edge of meaningful judicial evaluation. Operational since the mid-1980s, its purpose it to evaluate the on-the-bench performance of judges. This program permits the Branch to measure the views of two of our most important participants – attorneys and jurors. Questionnaires are distributed to attorneys who appeared before the judge for a proceeding that lasted at least one hour, and to jurors who sat on a case presided over by the judge. The attorney questionnaire measures a judge’s attitude toward individual groups and a judge’s performance based upon select characteristics. The juror questionnaire relates to the judges’ attitude toward the specific groups. The attorneys and jurors are encouraged to be forthright by the care exercised to keep the respondents anonymous.

These results of these evaluations are used in three ways. They are used by a Deputy Chief Court Administrator, who meets with judges regularly to discuss them. They are used in the design of educational programs for judges. They are also provided to the Judiciary Committee and the Judicial Selection Commission at the time for considering the re-appointment of a judge. It is important to note that, since its inception, the evaluation program has resulted in overwhelmingly favorable responses from attorneys and jurors.

The reappointment of judges to subsequent eight-year terms is largely a matter for the Executive and Legislative Branches of government. However, the Judicial Branch is committed to cooperating fully with those branches of government to ensure that they have all the information that is pertinent to the renomination of any judge. Our efforts are aimed at ensuring that the reappointment process is based on all the available information on that judge, so the decision that is made is based on the complete picture, not just one incident or aspect that has come to light.

If I have one message to deliver here today it would be that our system of government depends upon the independence of the judges to decide cases based upon the law free from fear of retribution, and that the system for appointment and reappointment should guarantee that to our citizens.

I will leave to others whose testimony will follow the specifics of the legislative actions most likely to bring about that result.

I would like to thank the committee for all the time and effort it has put into looking into this very important matter and for the opportunity to testify here today.

 

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