By Andy Thibault, Register Citizen
All is well in Connecticut’s family courts.
It’s so swell in family court, the administration of justice is probably even better than that of this state’s outstanding purveyor of kleptocracy, the probate court.
This ground is incredibly fertile for responsible legislators and reporters to uncover which court shafts citizens worse – probate or family. Both courts share the shield of doing much of their business out of public view.
Aggrieved parents who have not been able to see their children for years put so much heat on the legislature and the judicial branch that even Chief Justice Chase Rogers has acknowledged some sort of reform is needed. Rogers characterized the system as not “totally broken.” Many of these parents trapped in the system have shelled out huge sums – tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars – not only to regular lawyers, but also to court-ordered and unsupervised guardians.
For example, a Torrington parent testified on Jan. 9 before a legislative task force that he has spent more than five years and $50,000 unsuccessfully trying to enforce visitation with his child. That’s small change compared with many of the horror stories told during a 15-hour hearing that day.
The task force also heard testimony regarding an entity called the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC) which allegedly functions like a vendor and has had questionable practices, ties and relationships with judges, guardians and other court officials. Questions about AFCC have been raised in news reports by The Washington Times, which posted a 2013 opinion by the Connecticut Commission on Judicial Ethics stating: “An appearance of impropriety would arise if a Judicial Official serving on the board of directors of a nonprofit organization or member of the Judicial Office’s staff were to refer clients to the nonprofit organization.” At its worst, the AFCC operations have been likened to that of a racketeering enterprise. This could be fodder for the U.S. Justice Department, which disclosed to parents in January that it is conducting a review of the training that Connecticut judges and support staff receive regarding family court cases relative to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
As expected, lawyers, judges and guardians have circled the wagons to protect their turf. Lackeys in the Legislature can always be counted on to help. This is particularly true in the Judiciary Committee – traditionally a stepping stone to a judgeship – where 25 of the 44 current members are lawyers. All too often, these supposed representatives pull their punches or, worse – attack the complainants – when the subject is judicial misconduct.
How dare citizens demand to hold their public servants accountable, especially those who wear robes?
Still, something had to be done to contain the outcry. Why not form a task force to study the problems?
How about rigging the task force by putting those alleged to be at the heart of wrongdoing in charge?
That’s just what Senate President Don Williams and House Speaker Brendan Sharkey did. They appointed guardians at litem and attorneys Sue Cousineau and Sharon Dornfeld as co-chairs of the so-called Task Force To Study Legal Disputes Involving The Care & Custody Of Children.
This is not honest government. This is just a charade. This is proof that citizens cannot trust the Legislature to protect them – they have to act on their own.
Sadly, this is business as usual. Our alleged leaders used a similar process in the ongoing decimation of the state’s Freedom of Information law.
Every now and then, however, some legislators step up for justice. In the probate courts many years ago, it was a young representative named Chris Shays, who was jailed in his quest to expose corruption.
Today, we are blessed to have at least two legislators with the courage to speak the plain truth without regard to their own standing or well being. I call them Minnie Quixote and Edwin Quixote. They are state representatives Minnie Gonzalez and Edwin Vargas, both of Hartford. Coincidentally, like Shays, they are not lawyers.
“The system is broken … the system is letting these people down … they are losing their houses, they are losing their money,” Gonzalez said to Al Terzi and Laurie Perez on Fox61’s Real Story, telling of tearful testimony by victims of family court who have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to lawyers and guardians with virtually no hope of justice.
Dornfeld, for her part, said in a mass email last week that the disgruntled masses represented by about 80 witnesses at the January hearing “have found a few sympathetic but uninformed legislators, who led an attack on the reappointment of family judges.” I tried to reach Dornfeld by phone, but there was no answer at her law office.
A former Supreme Court justice now in private practice went so far as to misrepresent statements by Vargas and throw up a red herring about a threat to judicial independence because court spectators have included legislators. Message to Ian McLachan, the former justice: If a judge changes his or her demeanor because the public is watching, maybe that judge isn’t fit to wear the robe.
Here’s what Vargas actually said about the family court judge who barely gained reappointment in a 78-67 vote: “I’m not saying this is the only one that doesn’t deserve reappointment. There are quite a few of them.”
Here’s how McLachan misquoted Vargas in The Connecticut Law Tribune: “A [lawmaker] said about Judge [Leslie] Olear, ‘well, she’s not a bad judge … ’ ” Taxpayers have a right to expect better from any judge, much less a former justice like McLachan with a cushy pension who can’t get his facts straight.
Vargas also took some heat from WNPR’s John Dankosky on a recent Where We Live segment, allegedly for using hyperbole when describing the wretched, unchecked and unaccountable operations of Connecticut’s family courts. Dankosky took issue with Vargas citing North Korea as the Connecticut family court paradigm.
“The fact is,” Vargas told me, “family court is run like North Korea. In North Korea they can deprive you of your freedom and your wealth without due process. In family court they can deprive you of your freedom and your wealth without due process. They don’t kill you, like in North Korea, but for some parents not being able to see your child is like being killed.
“It sure ain’t America.”
Vargas is correct. This is Connecticut, where the phony task force thus far has been able to tank serious reforms recommended by Gonzalez Vargas and others. The recommendations and the suppressed reforms, reported succinctly by The Hartford Courant, include limiting the fees of guardians to $10,000.
In a positive development, Judiciary Committee members including Gonzalez, and senators Ed Meyer and Gary Holder-Winfield pressed judges on some of these issues during a hearing televised live on CT-N that began Monday morning and was expected to run into the evening.
Andy Thibault is a contributing editor for 21st Century Media’s Connecticut publications and the author of Law & Justice In Everyday Life. He formerly served as a commissioner for Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Commission. Reach Thibault by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cooljustice.