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Judge delayed release of decision on court openness

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   CONNECTICUT   ·   Secret Courts   ·   Oct.

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   CONNECTICUT   ·   Secret Courts   ·   Oct. 24, 2006

Judge delayed release of decision on court openness

  • A judicial review panel is investigating the former chief justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court, who held up release of a controversial opinion to avoid controversy during his successor’s confirmation hearing.

Oct. 24, 2006  ·   Former Connecticut Supreme Court Chief Justice William J. Sullivan is defending himself against charges of ethics violations for delaying the publication of a controversial ruling about public records.

Sullivan has admitted that he delayed releasing the decision for fear it would cause problems during the confirmation process of Justice Peter T. Zarella, who was appointed to succeed him as chief justice.

“I put a hold on the case because I didn’t want Peter or anyone else going over to the legislature to explain a case I wrote and I thought was going to be controversial,” Sullivan testified before the Connecticut Judicial Review Council last week, according to The Hartford (Conn.) Courant. “I felt this was going to be a hot-button case.”

Both Sullivan and Zarella say that Zarella knew nothing of Sullivan’s actions to delay releasing the opinion.

In the case at issue, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that records tracking court cases are not related to the courts’ administrative functions and therefore do not have to be released under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The records are documents containing defendants’ names, addresses, birthdates, court dates and other information. Sullivan and Zarella voted with the majority.

According to letters written to the legislature’s Judiciary Committee by Sullivan and Justice David M. Borden, the justices approved the opinions on March 14 and sent them to the Office of the Reporter of Judicial Decisions for editing. Normally, the reporter’s office would have posted the opinions on the judicial branch’s Web site a week or two later, and then officially published the opinion in the Connecticut Law Journal a week or two after that.

On or shortly after March 14, Sullivan told the reporter’s office to place the case on hold, apparently without consulting or notifying the other justices. Placing a case on hold is highly unusual and is usually done only for substantive legal reasons, according to Borden.

In a letter dated March 15, Sullivan told Gov. M. Jodi Rell that he was retiring. On March 17, the governor announced she was nominating Zarella to replace the retiring Sullivan. From speaking to Rell several months earlier, Sullivan knew that Zarella was the governor’s likely choice to replace him, according to the Courant.

In April, Sullivan removed the hold after another justice questioned him about it. The case was released electronically April 21.

The Judicial Review Council is reviewing whether Sullivan violated state law and the judicial code of conduct. Hearings will resume Nov. 17.

While many in Connecticut’s legal community have criticized Sullivan’s actions, others have come to his defense.

According to the Courant, two former chief justices defended Sullivan last week.

“In my opinion, this whole thing is a tempest in a teapot,” former Chief Justice Robert J. Callahan said. “I think it was the wrong thing to do, but the poor man has suffered enough already.”


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