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Most of the time, judges work in open view, with their actions on the bench and their legal opinions open to public examination. But once someone makes a formal complaint about a jurist, the process quickly becomes cloaked in a dark shroud of confidentiality. In Connecticut and virtually all other states, once a complaint is made against a judge, it enters an informational black hole, with long odds against it ever seeing daylight again. With a call to Connecticut’s Statewide Grievance Committee, anyone can find out how many times a Connecticut lawyer has been the target of ethical grievances and whether those grievances were dismissed or deemed to warrant review. But complaints against judges are, by statute, nobody’s business until Connecticut’s Judicial Review Council issues a finding of probable cause. Such findings are rare, averaging less than one every two years. In the past fiscal year, between July 1, 1999 and June 30, 2000, the council considered 91 complaints against 87 judges — plus two family-support magistrates, and two workers’ compensation commissioners — and found no actionable wrongdoing in any case. Eighty of the cases were dismissed after investigation, and 11 were barred by the statute of limitations. Of the 80 cases dismissed, 71 were found to have no factual basis, and 20 contained issues that could have been appealed. (Some cases had dual flaws.) But unlike the thousands of civil and criminal cases that pass through the courts annually, the complaints against judges are never open to public view — except in the rare case in which probable cause is found. The Washington, D.C.-based HALT, Inc., a legal watchdog group, says complaints against judges should be public from the start. HALT Executive Director James Turner says, “It’s corrosive of public confidence to have a completely sealed and secret star-chamber type of proceeding for judges.” Public misunderstanding of the process and its secrecy breeds mistrust, he says. “If you set out to design a system to undermine public confidence, I don’t think you could do a better job” than the typical state review system, in which complaints are kept secret, then overwhelmingly found to be meritless,” said Turner. Some states have gag rules, asking complainants to keep mum about their gripes. A 1992 federal case, Kamasinski v. Judicial Review Council, rendered by then-U.S. District Judge Jose A. Cabranes in New Haven, Conn., held that the gag violated the First Amendment. ONE EXCEPTION New Hampshire has opened even “meritless” complaint files so the public can judge. Its unique statute became effective April 1. “No records or materials become available for public inspection until after the judge has been given the opportunity to provide a reply that will be filed in the public record,” explains Cynthia Gray, director of the Center for Judicial Conduct Organizations at the American Judicature Society in Chicago, writing in its Judicial Conduct Reporter. Donald B. Caldwell, the executive director of Connecticut’s Judicial Review Council, says Connecticut law requires secret complaints. Disclosing edited versions or synopses of the complaints might give clues to which judge is the target of the complaint, he said. Connecticut’s accountability has steadily improved, and for the past four years, Caldwell’s office has produced an annual report. The 2000 report is a 44-page booklet available for free. It gives a history of the council, established by constitutional amendment in 1976, and contains applicable statutes and the code of judicial conduct. A statistical breakdown of the type of allegations made in all complaints is revealing. Most commonly, “gender or racial bias” is alleged in 25 of the 80 complaints. “Wrong decision” is next with 14, while 11 complaints are for “demeanor/temperament.” There were six allegations of both abuse of authority and refusal to hear evidence, and five each for disrespectfulness, procedural errors, and lack of impartiality. Judges received four complaints for both failure to recuse and ex parte communications. One complaint was lodged for: sexual harassment; racial discrimination; disability discrimination; defamation; collusion; incompetence and abuse of discretion. A decade ago, the council was criticized as ineffective, lacking a fixed address or even a telephone number. Since 1993, when Caldwell became executive director, it has had offices at 505 Hudson St., Hartford, Conn., and has steadily increased its accessibility and accountability.

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