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Blaming a lack of court staffing, administrative judges in Hartford and New Haven, Conn., Superior Courts have sent terse notices to area attorneys canceling all habeas matters. That move has raised the hackles of defense attorneys, who say the Judicial Branch is abrogating a constitutional right in favor of economic expediency. One notice sent from Hartford Superior Court, dated Feb. 19, was received by New Haven criminal defense attorney Diane Polan on Feb. 24. The one-sentence notice said directly: “All habeas hearings are cancelled until further notice due to shortage of courtroom security.” A similar notice, sent Feb. 14 to a public defender handling a habeas trial scheduled to begin in New Haven Superior Court on Feb. 25, was entitled “Notice of Cancellation of Trial” and simply said the trial was cancelled and would be reassigned. No reassignment date was indicated, however. Several sources confirmed that habeas matters such as trials, hearings or motions not of an “emergency” nature have been suspended due to a lack of judicial marshals, court reporters and other support staff lost to recent budget cuts. Petitioners are still allowed to file writs of habeas corpus with the courts. Despite being confronted with the court’s own pithy notice of cancellation, Chief Court Administrator Joseph H. Pellegrino denied that habeas hearings are being suspended or cancelled in Hartford or New Haven. “They haven’t suspended habeas matters … they’ve slowed them down. We’ve slowed a lot of things down. We are down some 300 or 400 employees,” Pellegrino said. “They haven’t suspended habeas proceedings in those two jurisdictions,” he reiterated. Pellegrino did not explain why the notices plainly say that habeas hearings are cancelled. “They are all going to be heard and there are no constitutional problems. I am not worried about it,” Pellegrino said. “What I am worried about is that we are down on staff. Hopefully the legislature will be able to work out a budget so that we will get some staff back.” Judicial practice requires that at least one to two marshals be present when prisoners are brought into court for habeas matters. Roughly 60 judicial marshals were given pink slips statewide in December. However, when New Haven Chief Judicial Marshal O’Donovan Murphy was contacted by The Connecticut Law Tribune last week about the lack of judicial marshals forcing a stoppage of habeas hearings, he responded “That’s news to me.” He then referred all inquiries to Judicial Branch administrators. CONSTITUTIONAL GUARANTEES “This is totally illegal, in my opinion,” Polan said of the cancellation notice sent to her. “I’m [sympathetic] to the problem of resource management … but to completely suspend habeas corpus is mind-boggling.” Philip Tegeler, legal director of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, called the suspensions “startling” and said the CCLU is investigating the matter. “It’s one of the most carefully guarded rights in the [state] constitution. The Judicial Branch does not have a right to suspend it,” Tegeler said of Article First, which states that the “privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended except in cases of rebellion or invasion.” “I don’t understand what authority they’re basing this decision on,” he added. “You can only assume that it’s a mistake that will quickly be rescinded.” Temmy Pieszak, chief of the public defenders’ habeas corpus service, said she was alarmed by the suspensions in New Haven and Hartford. “Of course, it is a concern when people aren’t able to get a trial on a case that is ready. Some people will be prejudiced,” Pieszak said. “Any delay in disposing of ready cases is going to contribute to increasing the backlog.” New Haven now boasts the biggest backlog with 484 pending habeas cases as of Feb. 21. At the same time, the court is grappling with the loss of its habeas case flow coordinator, Nancy Bauer, and 13 judicial marshals, due to recent budget cuts. “We can barely cover criminal and family courts … and civil courts have taken whatever might be available,” said one source from the New Haven Judicial District who asked not to be identified. Despite the reduced staffing, New Haven Administrative Judge Jonathan E. Silbert promised that any case that was an emergency would go forward. “Anybody who is prejudiced needs to tell us they have an immediate case that needs to be heard … . Anyone who needs to be heard will be heard,” Silbert said. “We have not suspended the writ of habeas … . We are just suspending those cases that don’t need to go forward until we get our staff back.” In Hartford, the habeas docket has been on the rise — with 250 pending cases as of Feb. 21. In November 2000, court officials said there were 84 pending cases on the judicial district’s habeas docket. “From my perspective, it’s kind of a day-to-day accommodation,” Hartford Administrative Judge Robert E. Beach Jr. said of the suspensions. “We have cancelled some hearings scheduled in advance … but it is no big program. It’s more ‘How do you prioritize with the resources you have for now?’ If something comes up as an emergency … of course we will do it.” Hartford Superior Court Judge Richard Rittenband, who handles the habeas docket, said he was approached by marshals who told him they did not have the personnel to cover all of the habeas matters. He said he then discussed the matter with Beach and Civil Division Chief Administrative Judge John J. Langenbach, both of whom agreed to the suspensions. “The [clerks] were told that all habeas [trials] were suspended here [in Hartford] until we can get enough marshals to guard the prisoners,” Rittenband said. “I don’t know who made the decision … . There was no letter or official notice. I brought it to the attention of the two people who would have control over it … . I have to do it that way. We have no marshals.” The Tolland Judicial District, which last year had the largest habeas backlog with 554 pending cases, has seen that number drop to 320 pending cases. Court personnel there attribute the sharp decline to the two judges, and specific marshals, assigned to the habeas docket. The Tolland Judicial District also has video teleconferencing capabilities, which allow hearings to be held without having to transport inmates to court. Judicial Branch spokeswoman Rhonda Stearley-Herbert said, starting this spring, the plan is to have all new habeas matters filed in New Haven handled through Tolland. The long-term plan is to have all new habeas cases for the remaining judicial districts handled there by late summer or early fall, she said. Chief Public Defender Gerard Smyth said the suspensions came as a surprise. The number of new habeas filings statewide, he noted, had decreased slightly from 395 in fiscal year 2000 to 384 for fiscal year 2001. “At this time, we are planning to deal with the situation on a case-by-case basis. If the lack of marshals at a particular location is a problem, we might request that the case be transferred to a different venue for trial,” Smyth said. “If this turns out to be more than a temporary problem and clients are precluded from having their cases tried, I will address it with Judicial Administration.” Connecticut Law Tribune editorial intern Christopher Ruvo contributed to this story.

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