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Connecticut’s judges converged on Middlesex Judicial Center Wednesday and swiftly ended the decades-old secret file system, approving comprehensive new rules, effective July 1. Anonymous, sealed and sometimes entirely hidden case files had been permitted since 1980 to spare a select few from public embarrassment, but this arcane secret file “solution” created more embarrassment for the courts than it eliminated. As one judge remarked heading into the courthouse, “Something wrong was done here. It should be undone.” In the afternoon’s one controversial vote, the judges debated new provisions for the automatic sealing of financial affidavits in divorce cases. It would keep these lists of income, assets and debts hidden, but such documents would be unsealed if a dispute arose over money issues. The measure passed after more than an hour of spirited debate. This gave a smooth landing to a wild ride for Connecticut Supreme Court Justice William J. Sullivan and Rules Committee chairman Peter T. Zarella, both still new in their roles. The new rules have no effect on some 54 “Level 1″ secret files which lack docket numbers or any public clue they exist. Also unaffected are over 10,000 “Level 2″ cases which name parties, but keep all documents relating to them out of the public domain. Federal lawsuits filed by The Hartford Courant and The Connecticut Law Tribune, which first revealed the existence of Level 1 cases, seek an open accounting for those still-secret cases. Though meeting behind closed doors last week, judges interviewed afterward gave Sullivan high marks for his handling of the public policy crisis. The chief’s opening remarks emphasized the collegial and cooperative objectives of the process. He then let proponents and opponents take turns speaking. Judges who favored the new rules’ policy of making financial affidavits sealed going into court, but subject to unsealing if contested, included F. Herbert Gruendel, the chief administrative judge for family matters, Appellate Court Judge Thomas A. Bishop and Superior Court Judges Jonathan J. Kaplan and Thomas J. Corradino. About an equal number spoke in opposition to automatic sealing, including Superior Court Judges Jon Alander, Christine S. Keller and Jon C. Blue. The rules committee proposal of automatically sealing affidavits would insure “a factory worker and a millionaire” would be treated the same, as Zarella put it. Bishop, who practiced family law before becoming a judge, contended that some shielding of a couples’ financial circumstances from public view was fair and proper for most run-of-the-mill cases. But Keller and Alander noted that many family cases are controlled by federal rules, with detailed financial forms and procedures for enforcing child support through family magistrates. In thousands of these “4D” cases, income and financial matters are public and highly detailed. The new rules would not control those procedures, opponents of the rule change argued. Thus, the only way to treat rich and poor alike is to maintain the existing system, with financial affidavits presumed open. In one sense, both sides were attempting to improve the image of the courts in the public eye. The pro-sealing side advocated user-friendly financial secrecy. The anti-sealing side favored more uniform treatment across the board. The judges chose to vote by paper ballot, rather than a roll call vote. The rule change on financial affidavits was endorsed by over 100 of the 175 judges voting. In the weeks leading up to the meeting, a robust exchange developed among the judges via e-mail. One much-quoted document in the exchange was a letter sent by supreme court Justice David M. Borden to Zarella, Borden’s successor as chairman of the Rules Committee. Borden expressed the view that, as a general rule, the processes and documents in courts should be open — unless closed or sealed for specific, articulated reasons. Practice Book Rule � 11-20 requires a judge, before sealing a file or closing a court, to explain the reasons for doing so “on the record in open court.” That rule, created while Borden headed the Rules Committee in the late 1990s, was effectively thwarted in practice when the judge’s explanation was buried in a sealed file, leaving no rationale for the case’s secret status. Under the new rules, Sullivan said after the vote, “The decision of a judge on the reasons for sealing a file is always available.”

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