Sunday, September 30, 2007
Connecticut's State Courts Eager To Open Up
By CHRIS POWELL
A year ago Connecticut's judiciary was by far the least open and accountable part of state government.
The chief justice had just scandalized the state, getting caught suppressing publication of still another state Supreme Court decision against freedom of information, and doing it so that a colleague nominated to succeed him as chief justice might not be asked about it at a legislative confirmation hearing.
The courts were resisting disclosure of dozens of cases that, with no authority in law, had been made secret at the request of some prominent and influential litigants.
Access to court files was being denied at the whim of court clerks who decided on their own whether information should be public.
Judges were meeting in secret conventions to adopt court rules, and their votes on those rules were never reported.
Judicial attendance records were being kept secret.
The courts were ruling against open government at almost every opportunity, especially in cases involving themselves.
Judges were even claiming the power to prohibit observers from taking notes in court.
That was only a year ago but it's starting to seem like a hundred years. For the scandals involving the chief justice and the secret cases have sparked sweeping reform from within and without.
The secretive and manipulative chief justice retired in disgrace and was reprimanded by the Judicial Review Council. His temporary successor as acting chief justice, David M. Borden, appointed a committee to propose ways of opening the Judicial Department and making it more accountable. So did Governor Rell, who stressed her desire for more openness and accountability when she nominated Chase T. Rogers as chief justice.
And while the recommendations of the reform committees have yet to be enacted as law, the judiciary has implemented many of them on its own. Indeed, Chief Justice Rogers has appointed so many committees of insiders and outsiders to promote openness and accountability that scrutiny of Connecticut's courts has never been greater. As insurance for this progress, Rogers has assigned Justice Borden, recently retired, to superintend court openness issues.
So there will be no more secret cases, and disclosure of the last of the old ones is being arranged. Judicial conventions now are held in public. Judicial attendance records are open. Procedures for public access to court documents are being standardized and explained to clerks. Courts are to be made more welcoming to the public. Perhaps most remarkably, the Judicial Department has vastly liberalized its rules for broadcast of civil court proceedings and soon will test the broadcasting of criminal trials in Hartford.
Some observers had expected that, when he began advocating openness as acting chief justice, Borden would be overthrown by his colleagues. He convened the next judicial convention in public and gently warned the judges that if the judiciary failed to reform itself, it might be forcibly reformed through legislation by the governor and the General Assembly. But there has been no opposition within the judiciary. To the contrary, judges who want the system to be more open are turning up everywhere. Maybe it was mainly a matter of setting the right policy and example at the top.
Obstacles to openness and accountability remain. Still standing are state Supreme Court precedents that have tortured the law and the language to impair open government. And the Judicial Department still misreads the state Constitution to deny the power of the governor and legislature to enact judicial rules.
But the bad precedents may be revisited in new cases, and as the judiciary reforms itself the misreading of the Constitution becomes less urgent and in time can be addressed by the legislature.
For now anyway Connecticut suddenly has a court system with the confidence to let the people it is supposed to serve see and understand more of what is going on. And why not?
Of course like everyone else the courts will make occasional mistakes and not enjoy their being noted. But due process of law and an independent judiciary (independent in deciding cases rather than legislating, the work of the other two branches of government) are glories of democracy dangerously unappreciated by a public whose cynicism about government is worsened by secrecy.
"Justice," Daniel Webster said, "is the great interest of man on earth." So the custodians of justice always have much teaching to do. At last its custodians in Connecticut are eager to do it.
Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn.