Editor’s Note: This profile of former Judge Raymond Norko is the sixth in a series of interviews with judges and recently retired jurists.
As a successful Legal Aid attorney and then judge, Raymond Norko was content in 1997 to continue his work as a Superior Court judge.
Norko, who said he’s always wanted to fight for the underdog, had been the executive director of the Hartford County Legal Aid Society for 10 years. He had been a Superior Court judge for 12 years, primarily covering Criminal Court in various locations, when then-Chief Court Administrative Judge Aaron Ment had an idea that he wanted Norko to spearhead.
The idea: Emulate a program in midtown Manhattan that focused on solely addressing quality-of-life crimes, such as loitering, prostitution, public drinking and panhandling.
At first Norko balked. He loved his duties, but then rethought Ment’s offer and decided to give it a shot.
In 1998, the Hartford Community Court opened. And it was there, in the pioneering court, that Norko became an institution. There, he handed down innovative community service sentences that showed compassion, as well as fairness, and helped strengthen the community he’s called home for more than 40 years. While New York City originated the idea, many who knew Norko and how he managed the Hartford Community Court said he helped to give it a unique identity.
“Obviously, Manhattan is a different animal altogether,” said Chris Pleasanton, program manager with court operations for the state. “Raymond took their framework and applied it to Hartford.”
Pleasanton, who once worked for Norko, added, “He is a man of great character and a lot of vision. He developed that court into what it is today. He was also responsible for working with different neighborhoods and different community organizations and groups.”
That community court has handled more than 154,000 arraignments, given out more than 568,000 hours of community service, and made tens of thousands of social service referrals over the past 20 years, according to officials.
And now, Norko, age 75, retired in March after about two decades serving the Hartford Community Court. His 20-year stint was not consecutive, as he often juggled other assignments, but many credit him with helping to make the court into what it is today.
“I have to admit, I was pretty clever in the sentences I handed out,” Norko told the Connecticut Law Tribune Monday.
One idea, involving ice cream trucks, got him on the cover of the national magazine, Parade.
“Every year, we got complaints from the neighborhood that the ice cream trucks were too loud in the music they were playing,” the former judge recalled. “They were playing the same song—the one you always hear from the ice cream trucks—over and over and over again and it was driving the residents crazy. We decided to put the ice cream truck in the back of the courthouse in the lot. The prosecutor and I went to the truck and looked at the settings of the sound. We walked back 100 feet and played the recording at the level we put it to. We made them set it to where we had set it to and told them they could not play it any louder. They could also only play the same song two times in a one-block area.”
Another time, Norko came up with the perfect community service sentence for a man who had punched a police horse in the nose. “We had him in the next St. Patrick’s Day parade and he’d follow the horse and pick up his droppings.”
Usually, community service involved things like shoveling, cleaning the streets and working on Foodshare trucks.
“I loved every minute of it,” Norko said. “It was all about people giving back to their communities via community service. My purpose was to send the people back from the neighborhood, where they allegedly committed the crime, to perform community service.”
Many communities throughout the country, and some outside the country, looked to Hartford to see how the Community Court dealt with nuisance crimes that could affect the quality of life in entire neighborhoods. In 2009 and 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Center for Court Innovation selected Hartford as one of four recognized mentor courts in the country. The Hartford Community Court also became a beacon on the international stage, hosting visitors from numerous countries including Russia, China, Japan, Sweden and India.
The American Bar Association on Aug. 3 recognized Norko for his 48 years of service as an attorney and judge by bestowing on him the prestigious Franklin N. Flaschner Award. The prize honors jurists in courts of limited jurisdiction with excellent reputations, a commitment to high ideals, exemplary character, strong leadership skills and noted ability to perform judicial duties.
Norko said he is proud of his work across the broad spectrum of his profession since graduating with a law degree from the University of Toledo in 1970. He’s fond of the entire journey: working with Legal Aid, sitting on the bench as a Superior Court judge, and then later helping to establish the Hartford Community Court.
But the former judge said his 15-year affiliation with Legal Aid still holds a special place in his heart.
“I loved working with the clients,” Norko said. “Legal Aid was in those days very disliked by the bar. They took the position that we were taking work away from them by representing clients at no cost. We were known as being aggressive and competent.”