The Connecticut Supreme Court decided 17 percent fewer cases in 2018, compared with the year before, and court experts believe that’s due to several changes on the bench over the past two years.
Those changes made for the biggest shake-up on the bench since Gov. Lowell Weicker appointed two justices in 1992 and two more in 1993. They included Gregory D’Auria joining the court as an associate justice in March 2017, Raheem Mullins and Maria Araujo Kahn both joining as associate justices in November 2017, and Steven Ecker joining as an associate justice in May 2018. In addition, Richard Robinson was elevated from associate justice to chief justice in May 2018.
“The bench has changed significantly the last few years. If you couple all of the changes together, it could be a contributing factor for the number of cases you have,” said Paul Hartan, chief administrative officer for the Connecticut Appellate Division.
The state’s seven-member high court decided 104 cases in 2017, but that number dipped to 86 in 2018. Typically, the court will hear about 124 cases per term, which runs from September through the end of April.
Hartan, who has been with the state’s judicial branch for about 30 years, told the Connecticut Law Tribune Thursday that he suspects the learning curve played a role in the drop of cases decided from 2017 to 2018.
“I think it’s just from a commonsense approach. Anytime you are coming into a new position, there will be a learning curve—everything from navigating through the building to producing your opinions,” Hartan said. “You have to build relationships with the support officers and you have to build relationships with the law clerks and editors. It all takes a little bit of time.”
Hartan continued: “Any profession, by and large, will be affected by change. If an athlete gets traded to a new city, for example, he needs to learn about that new city and their system. That can take some time.”
Similarly, former Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Joette Katz said she believes the major changes in the court personnel over the past few years is a contributing factor to the decrease in court decisions rendered.
Katz, who was appointed by Weicker in 1992 and served from 1993-2011, said, “There is a period of adjustment. You have to go through confirmation hearings. And until you are fully confirmed, you are not likely to assume a caseload and, also, depending on where in the cycle this happens, you may actually lose two months.”
Katz, who is also chairwoman of the Connecticut Law Tribune’s Editorial Board, said the last time she recalled as much movement on the high court was when she was appointed in the early 1990s. “Normally, it’s one justice one year and then one another year. But the number of vacancies being filled in a short period of time has an impact.”
Typically, Hartan said, the first term in September is the busiest. For example, he noted the court heard 20 cases in the first half of the 2016-17 term, but only eight in the last part. In 2017-18, the court heard 19 cases in the September portion of the term, and 12 in the April portion.
“They are just coming off August recess and they want to get back to work,” Hartan surmised. “The docket has built up and now it’s time to assign cases.”