For a variety of reasons, Connecticut’s lineup of federal judges is decreasing, and Chief Judge Alvin W. Thompson recently decided to put out a call for help.
The federal judiciary actually has a process for requesting temporary assistance. It’s done through the Federal Judicial Conference’s Committee on Intercircuit Assignments, which is chaired by U.S. District Judge Frederick J. Motz of Maryland. Thompson recently huddled with Motz and identified some 40 civil cases that could be handled by volunteer judges near and far.
Motz has come up with a list of at least nine federal judges from jurisdictions as far away as Montana and South Dakota. The judges will come to Connecticut during actual trial days, and they can conduct other business via telephone, teleconference and other electronic methods.
The federal courthouses in Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport currently have 14 active and senior judges, along with five magistrate judges, to handle about 2,400 pending criminal and civil cases.
There are seven active judges, including Mark R. Kravitz, who has been working from home since July due to the tragic progression of his Lou Gehrig’s disease. In July, Kravitz’s criminal cases were reassigned, and last week Thompson made a further decision. “I have concluded that we have come to the point where it is appropriate to have almost all of his current cases reassigned, so that’s going to be happening in the near term,” he said.
The precise timing would be announced on the federal court web site, Thompson said.
The federal court lost to other efficient jurists earlier this year. In January, senior Judge Peter C. Dorsey died. In March, Christopher Droney was elevated to the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Day Pitney trial lawyer Michael Shea has been nominated to replace Droney, but he has not yet been granted a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Partisan gridlock in Washington, D.C., and the current election season mean that Shea’s first real opportunity for confirmation would be in early 2013. If there is a change of administrations, it would further slow the process, according to Alliance For Justice, a Washington public interest group that monitors federal judicial appointments.
Many of the out-of-state senior judges Thompson can turn to for help with trials are 80 or older, and, while competent and good-natured about filling in, are not a true substitute for filled full-time positions.
They include Jack Zouhary and James G. Carr, of Ohio; William O. Bertelsman, of Kentucky; Charles B. Kornmann, of South Dakota; and Montana’s Donald W. Molloy. From New York, the visiting judges are Harold Baer Jr., Shira Scheindlin, Jane A. Restani, and Donald Pogue, the chief judge of the International Court of Trade.
Thompson said the judges will be providing a needed hand to the bar, their fellow judges and to the public.
Federal practitioner David Rosen, of New Haven, said, “We’ve been quite lucky in the past, to have the help of judges like Judge [Tucker L.] Melançon, from the western district of Louisiana, and Judge [Charles S.] Haight, ” who has moved to Connecticut from New York. Both senior judges have been assisting in Connecticut for several years.
Another New Haven federal practitioner, Charles Goetsch, said that he has sensed that Connecticut cases currently proceed more slowly than his cases in Massachusetts and New York federal courts. “It’s anecdotal, and may seem different to everyone, like the blind men and the elephant,” he said.
Thompson said he began to notice a problem when he could no longer set a date in his own courtroom for a civil trial within one year of the case being ready to proceed. He found that other judges were facing the same delays, and decided something had to be done.
The Speedy Trial Act requires prompt processing of criminal cases, and court time — and a judge — must be found for defendants who want to go to trial right away, Thompson said. There has been a gradual increase in the number of criminal trials, and some sharp increases in the number of criminal defendants. Last May, a surge in drug arrests created an unexpected influx.
In the 12-month period that ended Sept. 30, 2011, there were 220 criminal cases filed. In the past 12 months, the number has increased to 256 cases. For the same periods, the number of new criminal defendants has increased from 419 to 546.
On the other side of the docket, there were 2,010 new civil cases filed between Oct. 1, 2010 and Sept. 30, 2011, and 1,898 from last Oct. 1 to Sept. 27, 2012.
Bethany lawyer Norman Pattis, whose federal practice includes civil and criminal matters, said, “Throughout the state, in general, dockets are crawling — on the state side as well.” Clients are impatient and angry, and wondering why their cases aren’t moving, he said. “I think we’re short of resources, but at least the federal side can call in reserves.”
He continued: “I think the hardest thing about having visiting judges is that regional practice differences, and relationships between the bench and bar matter,” said Pattis, a ponytailed iconoclast who has readily concedes his courtroom style is an acquired taste.
While the out-of-state reinforcements are welcome, Pattis added: “Basically, we need judges of our own.”•