Superior Court Judge E. Curtissa R. Cofield is in trouble again.
Last time, in 2008, it was for moving recklessly. Cofield drove her BMW, drunk, into a parked State Police cruiser, injuring the trooper. Afterwards, her profane and sanctimonious lecturing of the arresting officers was captured on a YouTube video the Connecticut Judicial Branch would prefer never happened.
Now she’s in trouble for moving too slowly.
Despite a court rule requiring entry of judgment within 120 days of trial, Cofield, now a New Britain juvenile judge, has delayed three times that long in deciding the fate of 10 children whose parental rights were terminated —- thereby delaying their eventual adoption or other permanent placement.
Department of Children and Families Commissioner Joette Katz, a former state Supreme Court Justice, is taking this situation seriously. As DCF’s head, she is taking a rare – and possibly unprecedented – action to spur the judge to get the work done.
In a March 8 motion, Katz and Attorney General George Jepsen asked the state Supreme Court to exercise its broad supervisory authority over lawyers and the courts, and order Cofield to act. The Supreme Court sent the matter to the Appellate Court, which on March 14 ordered Cofield to issue the 10 judgments by April 1.
This is the latest of several deadlines. According to the DCF motion, last July, Cofield informally obtained waivers from the lawyers for the minor children and their parents.
Ilustrative is the case of Shmarr and Lendsey J., two children who have been in DCF custody since 2008 for neglect. Their termination of parental rights trial before Cofield was on March 28, 2012. Her 120-day deadline for rendering a judgment expired on July 26, 2012. The first agreement to extend Cofield’s time to rule, according to Katz’s filing with the Supreme Court, "was based on the parties understanding that [she] was scheduled to be on vacation during the month of July 2012," and only needed a short time after that to render a decision.
It was not to be.
The lack of a ruling on Shmarr, Lendsey and the eight other young children dragged on through the summer, fall and winter. Meanwhile, DCF and Katz were acutely aware of their duties. "As guardian for the children, the Petitioner is responsible for providing them with a safe, secure, permanent home," DCF wrote in its Supreme Court brief.
‘Time Of Essence’
The state’s courts have an attitude of urgency in foster care matters like these. "Because of the psychological effects of prolonged termination proceedings on young children, time is of the essence," state Supreme Court wrote in the 1992 case of In re Alexander V., the DCF motion states.
Allowing a judge unlimited time to render judgment would thwart DCF’s statutory duty to the children to either reunite families, or place the children in stable family settings, the agency contends.
Katz, in an interview, said: "This is unusual, but I think the significance of the interests at stake compelled us to take the position we took. As a matter of practice and policy going forward, no extensions are going to be acquiesced to by the AG’s office without my input."
DCF’s attorney in this matter is Assistant Attorney General Benjamin Zivyon. Attorney General George Jepsen declined comment on the matter, citing its pending status.
In the most surprising 2011 appointment by incoming Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Katz stepped down from the Supreme Court to head DCF. In her judicial career, Katz said she had never seen DCF bring an action quite like this one, but she said the Supreme Court’s broad supervisory powers have been used to spur judges to action before. "And I can tell you from my years on the bench," Katz said in the interview, "there were a couple of cases where we put in a footnote questioning `Where were the lawyers?’
In these cases involving Cofield, Katz was not faulting the lawyers. However, "If we didn’t take any action, it wouldn’t be OK. And I didn’t want anybody looking back at us in the future, if and when these cases were appealed, and have a court say, `Where were you in the lives of these children?’ So it was really through that lens that I instituted this action.
"I know it’s unusual," Katz added. "It’s unfortunate. I didn’t do it lightly."
The motion for the court order arises from Practice Book Rule 60-2, which allows the Supreme Court to exert supervisory control of a matter on appeal "or earlier." This is a rare pre-appeal intervention by the high court. The DCF motion relies on a 1970 Supreme Court ruling to jump start a case that had languished for two years because the judge failed to rule on a motion to set aside the verdict.
"A judge of the Superior Court must not be permitted to hold a case in limbo and thwart appellate review by neglecting or refusing to comply" with the Practice Book, the high court wrote in Tough v. Ives. Underscoring the urgency, that decision was rendered seven days after argument.
Termination of parental rights cases are increasingly being recognized as urgent court business — the most serious intrusions the state makes into the nuclear family. In addition, a child’s bonding and development is at stake, explains Brendan Levesque, of Hartford’s Horton, Shield & Knox. For the past five years, he has handled appeals of termination cases as a special public defender, and says that court rules are now recognizing the need for alacrity.
"When we started these appeals, they were handled basically like a regular appeal," Levesque said. "If the attorneys asked for extensions of time, the appeals could take 18 months from start to finish. Now, in all but the most incredible circumstances, motions for extension of time are denied."
And, he added, when extensions are granted, "if you ask for 30 days, you’re regularly given seven."
Appeals can interrupt visitation rights, which in turn disrupt the bonding process for the natural, foster or adoptive parents – time which can never be recaptured, Levesque noted. "You can be looking at an 18-month appeal period where the parent has not seen the child. That’s awful, and it is simply not fair," said Levesque.
"I think what [Commissioner Katz is] doing is absolutely the right thing to do, for everybody involved," he concluded.
Judge Cofield, through a spokeswoman for the Judicial Branch, declined to comment. South Windsor lawyer James E. Sulick said, "I have not filed an appearance for Judge Cofield, but I consider myself a counselor to Judge Cofield’s whole family."
Sulick defended Cofield in her 2008 DUI matter, in which she had been videotaped using profanity and racially disparaging epithets to deride an arresting officer in the police station. In a subsequent Judicial Review Council proceeding, Cofield was represented by Raymond Hassett, of Simsbury’s Hassett & George. A psychologist testified in her defense that Cofield’s intoxication prevented her from acting willfully. After the Judicial Review Council viewed the videotape, it and concluded she was mentally alert, belligerent and contentious.
Judge Cofield received a suspension of 240 days, which she did not appeal. Sulick said he had not yet seen a Judicial Review Council complaint against Cofield in the current matter, but was discussing with her whether he or some other lawyer should represent her. "I am going to wait to respond to any specific allegations. I don’t want to comment on anything about Judicial Review. We’re going to respond in a very appropriate way," said Sulick.