With its leader suggesting that other stiff punishments could be handed down in the future, the state Judicial Review Council last week suspended New Haven Superior Court Judge William Holden without pay for 20 days. Holden has been the target of four complaints from criminal defendants who needed his written rulings to proceed with their appeals, but did not receive them for as long as two years.
Holden’s lawyer, William F. Dow III of New Haven, argued that other judges in the past have been given much lighter sanctions for offenses that raised more serious ethical issues, such as dishonesty, improper influence, abuse of office or lack of impartiality. Dow argued that his client’s delayed decisions did not implicate the "bedrock qualities" essential to a fair and impartial judicial system—independence, fairness and impartiality.
But council chairman Wayne R. Keeney, a Bridgeport criminal defense lawyer, said that decision recognized that time is critical in the judicial process, and that particularly in criminal cases, justice cannot be delayed .
Furthermore, he said, punishments handed out by prior councils need not bind the current 14-member collection of judges, lawyers and lay citizens. "Those were other councils in other times," Keeney said in an interview. "Years ago, we used to think that domestic violence wasn’t a serious matter. People learn."
Dow said he did not know whether Holden would appeal. The Judicial Review Council is an executive branch agency, serving as one check and balance on judges. In its 33-year history, 10 judges have been punished, and all appeals have upheld.
Only one judge, Seymour L. Hendel, has been exonerated after a council hearing. His case was the first to be reviewed by the council, in 1989, when he was cleared of alleged misconduct stemming from comments to a newspaper reporter.
Holden’s misdeeds were downplayed by Dow, in his sentencing memorandum to the council. "He has found it difficult to generate the required paper," Dow explained, using an informal term for a written decision.
Currently, Holden is in charge of trying to dispose of cases in pre-trial hearings in General Area Court 23 in New Haven. Lawyers and litigants report that he’s good at it, and his job generally doesn’t require writing decisions. Generating paper is "rarely needed," wrote Dow.
For its part, the council viewed the charges against Holden as serious. "I would almost describe its attitude as grim," said Keeney, the chairman.
The 20-day suspension amounts to about a month without pay; Superior Court judges make about $147,000 a year. The sanction is more severe than the 15-day suspension given to former Supreme Court Chief Justice William J. Sullivan in 2006 for delaying the printing of a controversial judicial decision to aid the career advancement of a colleague.
It is less, however, than the 30-day suspension received by Supreme Court Justice Flemming L. Norcott Jr. in 1994 for his failure to recuse himself from a case being argued by a female public defender who, in his words, was his "close personal friend."
In the 1990s, Superior Court judges were routinely punished with no more than a public censure. More recently, driving while intoxicated offenses have drawn the longest punishments. Hartford Superior Court Judge E. Curtissa R. Cofield was suspended for a record 240 days in 2009 for a DWI arrest and a subsequent verbal tirade against the Glastonbury police who arrested her.
"I’ve reviewed all of those prior cases, every one, and there isn’t one that I would have agreed with, as far as the amount of suspension. I think every one of them was too light," said Keeney. "The sanctions were so minor that I think the bar and the public lost confidence in the Judicial Review Council."
In the council’s 33-year existence, judges have faced disciplinary hearings at the rate of one every three years.
"Not that I think we have a particularly problematic bench," said Keeney. But slap-on-the-wrist punishments for serious offenses may have led the public to think,"why bother?" he said. "That’s probably why these [disciplinary hearings are] so sporadic."
Chief Justice’s Letter
In Holden’s case, he sentenced Christopher Shaw to 15 years in prison for sex offenses on June 6, 2008. Fourteen months later, Shaw filed an appeal through the state public defenders’ legal services unit.
On July 7, 2009, assistant public defender Alice Osedach filed a motion for articulation with the Supreme Court, requesting an explanation of Holden’s denial of a hearing on certain DNA evidence. The motion was forwarded to Holden the next day. Around Dec. 1, 2009 a Supreme Court clerk sent Holden a reminder notice.
In February 2011, Osedach asked the Supreme Court to direct Holden to issue his articulation by March 4, 2011. He missed that deadline, but promised he would complete the task in April. In May, Supreme Court Clerk Michele Angers wrote Holden, citing the delays and asking him to act expeditiously.
In June 2010, Osedach catalogued the history of delays and efforts to prompt Holden to write. Finally, on July 12, Holden filed his articulation, which was five pages long. Later that month, Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers reprimanded Holden in a letter stating his two-year delay was unreasonable, and should not be repeated. Meanwhile, Shaw’s appeal is pending.
At Holden’s hearing on July 18, Scott J. Murphy, executive director of the Judicial Review Council, had witnesses at the ready to bring a case against Holden. Three other criminal defendants had filed complaints with the council, and Murphy was prepared to submit evidence from all four matters.
Dow, who had been belatedly retained by Holden, sought a continuance to prepare a full defense. When it was denied, Holden decided to acknowledge the charges and argue for a minimal punishment at the Sept. 5 sentencing hearing.
The three other prisoners who lodged complaints are John Jackson, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to 55 years in 2008; Richard Santos Jr., sentenced to 12 years for assault in 2009; and Tyquan Avant Brodia, sentenced to 12 years on narcotics charges in 2009.
After delays and reminders, according to Murphy’s sentencing memorandum, Holden belatedly produced opinions or orders. In Jackson’s case, it took 11 months, and in Brodia’s case, it took 13 months. In Santos’ case, after 15 months, Holden issued a one-page order that allowed the unsealing of four pages of medical records.
In the judge’s defense, Dow argued that none of the convicts lost their right to appeal.
Keeney, an ex-Marine who has worked as a New York police officer, a prosecutor and a defense lawyer, has studied the inner workings of the justice system for decades. Imposing this penalty was not easy, he said.
"Judge Holden is a good man," Keeney said. "But, at the same time, we have a responsibility to the people of Connecticut to make sure that judges do their jobs in the way they’re required to. Nobody felt good about doing this, I can assure you, but it was something that had to be done." •