Editor’s note: This is our first in a series of stories on sitting and recently retired judges, beginning with a profile of former Superior Court Judge Antonio Robaina.
Antonio Robaina was known as a straight-shooter and a good listener from the bench, where he served 20 years as a Superior Court judge. Robaina hung up his robe last month for a chance to work with Lou Pepe, his longtime friend at the powerhouse firm of McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter.
Robaina, who became an attorney after earning his law degree from the University of Connecticut School of Law in 1979, would have never made it into the profession if it were not for his mentor: his father, also named Antonio.
Watching his father’s dedication as an attorney in his native Cuba, and then again in Connecticut, was his inspiration to follow in the older man’s footsteps, Robaina said in an interview Friday with the Connecticut Law Tribune.
“My dad was a lawyer in Cuba and, when he came here as a political refugee in 1961, his degree was no good,” Robaina said. “He went to law school in Cuba and then again here. He studied law in two languages and practiced in two different systems of law.”
Robaina’s father worked in Connecticut with several attorneys from 1972 to 1979. In 1979, the father and son began their 19-year working partnership at Robaina & Robaina in New Haven. They worked together until the elder Robaina’s death in 1998, the same year his son was elevated to Superior Court judge.
Robaina said his father had a passion for immigration law, “while I did everything else.”
“I did a lot of civil work, insurance defense work, plaintiff work and a fair amount of criminal work,” he said. His father, Robaina said, had a fighting spirit that he has tried to emulate.
“To him, being a lawyer and a member of the profession, meant everything,” said Robaina, a 63-year-old Essex resident. “He came to this country not speaking English and knowing he was going to be a lawyer again.”
Robaina saw it all as a Superior Court judge. He worked in courts throughout the state from three separate stints in Hartford to Middletown, New London, Norwich, New Haven and Windham County, which encompassed Danielson, Willimantic and Putnam. He served as a trial judge in criminal, family, civil jury and juvenile cases. Notably, from September 2002 to August 2003, Robaina was the presiding judge for family matters in the Hartford Judicial District, having the largest docket in the state.
Robaina said working in family court was the most grueling and took the most out of him.
“I did a little bit of family work as a lawyer and I had a feeling of what was involved,” he said. “But the day-in and day-out of working in family court is as grueling as any assignment that I had. It’s relentless. The work and problems are relentless. The misery, if you will, of what the families are going through is really taxing on you.”
Robaina said family court is unique from other courts because, unlike with litigation, there are no winners and losers.
“You are dealing with divorce and custody issues,” Robaina said. “In some sense, the work was rewarding. But the difficulty in working in family court is none of the parties are ever happy. Someone wins and loses in litigation, but here that is not necessarily the case. People and families are split apart and the kids are torn apart. It’s, by nature, a very unhappy courtroom.”
While some people can go to work and leave their problems in their office when they get home, Robaina said he had a hard time doing that. It was near impossible, he said.
“I always took my work home with me,” he said, adding. “These cases have an impact on you. You think about these cases when you are at home. I thought about the cases when I was running, fishing or just driving.”
The cases that impacted Robaina the most were those that involved children.
The one case that had the most lasting effect on him occurred about 10 years ago, he said.
“I did the sentencing in a murder case in Windham County. It was a domestic violence situation where the accused had stabbed his girlfriend with a knife repeatedly,” Robaina recalled. “Her son, an adorable little boy, was in the same room at the time it happened. The kid was orphaned because of it. His entire life was upended in such a horrible way. He was at the sentencing and I could not take my eyes off of him. I kept looking at him. It’s one of those cases that you can’t forget. I can still picture the kid’s face.”
While family court was the most grueling, Robaina said he enjoyed jury cases the most.
“I liked settling cases, and I liked the interaction with the lawyers,” he said. “In jury cases, you watch the whole process unfold. When you are a judge, you have the best seat in the house. You can see strategies develop and evidentiary problems unfold. And, you get to see the jury’s reaction to it all. It’s fascinating.”
For those who know and or have worked with Robaina, it was his fairness that stood out.
“I think his best trait was that he was a lawyer’s judge. He did not forget that before he was a judge, he used to practice law. He did not forget that there are real clients who have a stake in these cases,” said attorney John Houlihan Jr., a partner with RisCassi & Davis in Hartford.
Houlihan, who said he appeared before Robaina more than 100 times, said the judge was “extraordinarily fair.”
“He was right down the middle,” Houlihan said. ”He had the ability to tap into the humanity of whatever case it was that was before him.”
Attorney Herb Shepardson appeared before Robaina upward of 80 times in his career.
“He was always a straight-shooter,” said Shepardson, a partner with Hartford’s Cooney, Scully & Dowling, who most recently has appeared before Robaina in his role as a mediator. “He had an uncanny ability to bring people together from widely disparate positions.”
Robaina said his most rewarding work is done outside of the courtroom. He has been a mentor to aspiring lawyers for decades. Most recently, he has mentored University of Connecticut Law School students.
“I always enjoyed the benefit of having a lot of mentors when I was younger,” he said. “My father’s friends, most of whom were lawyers, all mentored me. I like to give back, and it gives me satisfaction to mentor law students.”
Robaina was in private practice for nearly 20 years before serving as a judge for two decades. He joked that at age 63, he has 20 more years in him as a lawyer.
“I do not foresee retiring,” he said. “It’s not something I think about.”