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Friends counseled William J. “Tocco” Sullivan that as chief justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court, he might want to lose the nickname. No way. Before the legislative Judiciary Committee last month, he opened with “I’m Tocco Sullivan.” In an interview Feb. 2, he spoke equally plainly about his goals for Connecticut’s Judicial Branch, which he’s poised to lead until his mandatory retirement on March 12, 2009, his 70th birthday. “I don’t have any secrets,” he said. “I’m not going to have any secrets in running the court. There’s not going to be any secrets in running the Judicial Department. If judges want to know something” other than their next judicial assignment), “they’re just going to have to call up, and they’re going to get the answer,” he said. He says he’d like to demystify the supreme court for everyone from schoolchildren to trial judges. During supreme court oral arguments, students file in and fidget for five to 10 minutes. Sullivan says he’d like to offer them a short film at the nearby state historical museum. “It would add to their day, their knowledge of the court, and maybe have them appreciate more.” Sullivan endorses using Superior Court judges — not just appellate court judges — to fill vacancies on supreme court panels. “I know it would have helped me, if I’d had some experience of sitting on a case at the appellate level. In 1989, I was a judge on one case at the Appellate Court on a divorce case,” he said. It was a helpful glimpse, and more of it would have been more helpful, Sullivan added. Asked to list mistakes of trial judges, Sullivan turned the question around. “I can only speak for myself,” he said, happier to talk about his own learning curve than the shortcomings of others. Deliberativeness can save time, he says. Example: a probation revocation hearing. “It’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the lawyers have to be somewhere else, the police officer has to get to work at 4 o’clock. And you rush it. They take an appeal, and you’ve missed something. You should have put your reasons on the record, or you didn’t put your full reasons on; you should have expounded on your reasoning. “The one thing I learned when I got to the appellate level: When you’re trying the case on the trial bench, you have to put down your reasons for a decision. Make sure the Appellate Courts know why you decided the case the way you did,” Sullivan said. “Your chances of being upheld are much greater if the Appellate Court understands your reasons, because most times you’re going to be right. That’s from my experience,” he said. “If I’d come up here a few times, I may have done things differently during the 18 years I was on the trial bench.” SMART ANSWERS? In January, when Sullivan was examined by the Judiciary Committee, State Rep. Gail Hamm, D-East Hampton, asked why he’d left his study for the priesthood. His wife was sitting right behind him, and three of his four sons were watching. Sullivan admits he was tempted to respond with a clever answer, but “I thought, I better not. … I don’t know where she’s coming from.” Three years ago, he noted, a reporter from The Law Tribune asked him about the origin of his nickname, Tocco. “I said it was because my mother was Spanish, and you put it in the paper.” That was a joke. “Tocco” has nothing to do with Mexico or cornmeal. The term was coined as a nickname for Sullivan’s father, Timothy, who at the age of about 11 — some 90 years ago — worked at a corner grocery store in Waterbury. The owner liked to go home for lunch. Young Timothy would watch the store, and always helped himself to a banana — an unofficial part of his compensation package. The slang term “hock” can mean “steal.” Timothy Sullivan invented a new verb. He didn’t really “hock” it when he took one, so he blended “hock” with “took” and always told the shopkeeper he “tock” a banana. That earned him the nickname “Tock-o.” Justice Sullivan was named after his grandfather William, but the name Tocco was given him by his mother. This nickname is like a recessive gene in Sullivan men. It cannot be passed on without a female who is Tocco-positive. “I have four sons; the first is named after my father, and I wanted to give him the nickname. My wife wouldn’t hear of it. None of my four sons have the nickname,” Sullivan said. “My grandson was born about a year and a half ago, named after me. My son wanted to give my grandson the nickname Tocco, and his wife wouldn’t hear of it.” For the moment, Tocco is safe with Sullivan, who has only been “Williamized” briefly, and involuntarily. “I don’t think of myself as William Sullivan,” he said. “When I was in first grade, and the nun would not call me Tocco, I would run out of the schoolroom! ‘My name is Tocco; my name’s not William.’ That lasted about a month. After she whacked me a few times, I started answering to William.” JUDGES’ BRANCH Sullivan’s experience as a trial judge is as much a part of his persona as his nickname. He’s served just over a year each on the Appellate and Supreme courts. But those 18 years in trial court run deep. Those years form the basis for his opposition to having non-judge “civilians” in key administrative roles. “In some areas of the country, they are turning over the administration of the judicial system to civilians — and the judges are doing the judging.” “But in Connecticut, as long as I’m the chief justice, the judges are going to run the judicial system. And we’re not going to have a civilian chief court administrator, we’re going to have a judge that is chief court administrator.” He heartily backs having a judge run the new marshal system, replacing the old sheriffs who were part of a system that voters last November voted out of existence. Of judges in the Judicial Branch, he says, “If we’re responsible for it, then we’re going to run it. That’s my philosophy.” Someone else could “come out of an ivory tower school with a Ph.D., and be the smartest guy in the world,” and just not be as good as a judge, Sullivan says. “I think we’re more capable of doing it, if you want to know the truth.”

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