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Connecticut Supreme Court Chief Justice William J. Sullivan is calling for a rule change to broadly abolish “stealth files” from Connecticut courts. Just two months after The Connecticut Law Tribune published details of the largely hidden practice, Sullivan said a change is required to assure that the administration of justice appears open and fair. He appointed a group of judges to study secret filing practices, and they unanimously recommended abolishing the old approach. Sullivan said in an interview this month, “I’m very concerned about the perception and the fact that everybody gets treated the same in our courts. Whether you’re a celebrity or John Q. Citizen who works in the factory down the street, you get the same treatment in the courts.” In a written statement announcing the group’s decision, the chief justice said “secret files may undermine public trust and confidence in our state courts, something that we have worked hard to strengthen over the past several years and will continue to do.” In recent years, a small group of civil and family court litigants have been able to obtain off-the-books docket numbers for case treatment that is so invisible, neither the press nor public could know they even exist. Those who’ve wangled such private accommodation in pubic courts include a few people whose lives are genuinely in danger — such as the rare divorce litigant who’s also in the federal witness protection program. More typically, the perk of “Level I” secret case status has been held out to the multimillionaire CEO, state lawmaker, judge or famous lawyer. Recently, the Law Tribune reported that University of Connecticut President Philip G. Austin and his wife had their divorce shrouded in the ultra-secret mode, with top-level family court approval. The working group, which met with Sullivan last month, consisted of Chief Court Administrator Joseph H. Pellegrino, Family Division Chief Administrative Judge F. Herbert Gruendel, Supreme Court Justice Peter T. Zarella, and Superior Court Judges Jon M. Alander, Lynda B. Munro and Elliot N. Solomon. Gruendel said he favors limiting the use of file-sealing to specific segments of a case that warrant it, such as psychological reports, private medical records or sensitive economic details. In addition, in cases where a person’s physical safety is truly threatened, sealing is appropriate, Gruendel said. Connecticut statutes and Practice Book rules authorize file-sealing and court-closing after a 72-hour period to make objections. As spelled out in “MS-2000-19,” issued June 12, 2000, by the Judicial Branch Technical Assistance Unit in Wethersfield, clerks distinguish secret files as Level 1, 2 or 3. The most hidden is Level 1, marked by an orange sealed file or sealed document sticker. Cases in this category are not permitted to appear on a short calendar list or assignment list, and cannot be detected on the “Civil-Family Lookup” procedure on the Judicial Branch Web page. In fact, clerks are instructed to go to great lengths to hide the original docket number, by photocopying the “daybook” record of cases as filed in each courtroom. “It is suggested that a photocopy of the original Daybook page be made and the docket number and name of the case be redacted. In the redacted space, add ‘Level 1 file,’” the manual instructs. The public gets to see the altered photocopy, while the original is hidden away in a secure location “such as the safe,” it states. Courts that use index cards to catalogue cases are instructed to simply pull the cards for Level 1 cases, and hide them with the Daybook originals. To be enacted, the recommended policy change would need the approval of the Rules Committee of the Superior Court, which Zarella chairs. It would then go to a vote of all state judges at their annual meeting in June.

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