To The Editor:
Lisa Siegel’s article in the January 30th issue of The Connecticut Law Tribune entitled “Lay Judges: Law Licenses Not Vital” was a balanced report on the actions of the Program Review and Investigations Committee meeting. It is in marked contrast to the biased reporting of the probate court controversy that the Hartford Courant has published of late.
As an attorney who has practiced law in the Connecticut courts for 38 years, I am one of those attorney judges who do appreciate the value of the non-lawyer probate judges. I recognize the knowledge of Medicaid and other state assistance programs that all of the non-lawyer probate judges possess from their years of experience with cases involving social services issues.
There is no magic in a law degree.
Federal law does not require a law degree to serve as a justice on the Supreme Court or as a member of Congress. Our state statutes do not require a law degree to serve in our legislature, yet the General Assembly writes all the laws that we probate judges apply to the cases we hear. The belief of some of my fellow Connecticut Bar Association members that a law degree ensures competence is laughable and ignores the selection and review process inherent in the Connecticut Constitution that requires probate judge be approved by the voters in the probate district every four years.
If probate matters are becoming more complicated, as some contend, it is because the lawyer and non-lawyer legislators and administrators have made the laws more complicated. Having a law degree will not guarantee that a probate judge is going to correctly apply the law to the cases heard in the probate courts. It is not a question of formal education, it is a question of dedication and non-lawyer judges are the most dedicated judges in our probate system. The appeal and complaint statistics prove that fact.
Since 1993, the Probate Court Administrator has been required by section 45a-27 of the Connecticut General Statutes to provide appropriate training for new, incoming judges. The hope is that the new training program that will be developed in response to the direction of the legislature’s Program Review and Investigations Committee will incorporate the invaluable knowledge and experience of the non-lawyer judges as well as incorporate a component dealing with the issues of conservatorships and the elderly, as recommended by State Sen. Edith Prague at the December Program Review Committee meeting.
As recommended by the original Casey Family Services study, this new training program should also be coupled with a regularly scheduled training forum for probate judges to “inform, educate and create consistency across Probate Courts” on issues involving children, DFC and the Juvenile Courts.
Russell A. Kimes Jr.
Judge of Probate