Editor’s note: This profile of Connecticut Appellate Court Judge Michael Sheldon is the ninth in a series of interviews with judges and recently retired jurists.
Growing up in Schenectady, New York, in the 1960s, the last thing Michael Sheldon wanted to become was a lawyer—let alone a judge.
Sheldon, who today sits on the Connecticut Appellate Court, was interested in a lot of things growing up. Those interests included getting directly involved in the protests of the day, such as fighting apartheid in South Africa, fighting for women’s rights or for civil rights. Sheldon, now 69 years old, also had an interest in political science, and had dreamed of being an astrophysicist.
Sheldon also had a fascination with Russia and its people, especially since it was the height of the Cold War. He studied Russian in high school and then again at Princeton University, where his specialty was Russian studies and international affairs.
“I studied the language early on and I was pretty good at it,” Sheldon said.
Sheldon later won a grant to study in a summer program in the Soviet Union through the University of Michigan. He would spent 30 days there at age 20. He fell in love with the country and devoted his life to traveling there. Most notably, he went there as vice chairman of the Connecticut-Pskov Rule of Law Project, a partnership of sorts with lawyers and judges in Pskov, a city in western Russia, near the boarder with Estonia, a 12-hour train ride from Moscow. He held the role of vice chairman from 2003-2013, when money for the trips ran out.
“I thought a wonderful thing to do in my life would be to humanize the face of Russia for Americans,” he said.
Sheldon was a law professor at the University of Connecticut from 1976 until he was named to the Connecticut Superior Court in 1991. He was promoted to the Connecticut Appellate Court in 2011.
Through it all, Sheldon kept a connection with the country. In 1979, he spent three weeks there meeting with the country’s top judges, lawyers and legal minds.
“We saw many Russian courts and plenty of attractions,” he said. “It was an opportunity to meet with Russians who were, in essence, our colleagues and in positions comparable to our own.”
Those relationships forged in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, remain today, Sheldon said.
From 1990 through 2000, Sheldon also helped run an exchange program between the school system in Canton and a section of Moscow. It was a student/teacher exchange, and Canton students went to Russia every year of the program. Meanwhile, Sheldon had Russian visitors staying in his home.
The pinnacle of his Russian experience came in 2003 when Sheldon was named vice chairman of the Connecticut-Pskov Rule of Law Project. In that role, Sheldon organized and participated in teaching at annual educational seminars for Russian judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers.
“They were approaching the process of starting jury trials and updating their system of justice,” Sheldon noted. “They were experimenting with things like plea bargaining. We learned from each other.”
“Most teachers have this feeling that, at one point in their life, there will be that one person who is at least 10 times smarter than I am. Michael was that person. He is brilliant, has a photographic memory and is a joy to be around.” The two remained closed friends and decided to start the law project together.
Even though the money for the trips ran out and the law project disbanded several years ago, the trips to Russia continue, as do the friendships.
Sheldon was last in Russia in 2016 and plans on returning next year.
“Jonathan and I will be traveling there to make sure that our friends understand that, regardless of what is going on politically with the two countries, that the underlying friendships formed were real and substantial and are continuing.”