The past five years have been especially challenging for Superior Court Judge Curtissa Cofield.
In 2008, she was suspended from her position as a judge for eight months after an episode in which she was arrested for drunk driving and then hurled insults at police officers.
Last week, she appeared before the Judicial Review Council on charges that she took too long to issue decisions in child welfare cases. For the second time in her career, Cofield was suspended under an agreed-upon disposition, this time for 30 days without pay.
Cofield, who has been on the bench since 1991, most recently in New Britain Juvenile Court, took the opportunity to apologize to those she's let down, and to explain the difficulties she has faced in her life. "A lot of people look up to me," Cofield told the members of the council. "I want to formally apologize to the community for the times I've let them down."
Cofield offered no explanation for the delays — some of them totaling nearly nine months — in issuing decisions in the cases involving children under the care of the Department of Children and Families. But she did discuss her much-publicized 2008 drunk driving arrest. Cofield explained that her father had died not long before, and she was distraught. "The rest is history. I drank too much, I left the bar and I got into an accident just after a construction site. I thank God that no one was seriously injured."
In addition to paying for her actions by losing a paycheck for eight months, the experience brought Cofield "shame and humiliation."
"I spent many years marveling at the light," she said. "And that is where I will return" from her latest transgression.
Under the agreement hashed out between the council and the judge's lawyer, Hubert Santos, Cofield admitted she had violated the rule that requires judges to issue written opinions within 120 days of trial.
As a result of those delays, according to attorneys representing DCF, 10 children were stuck in foster care limbo for more than a year. During that time, the children, who were awaiting adoption or placement in homes with relatives, were uncertain of their fates and could not be placed.
Joette Katz, a former Supreme Court justice who is now DCF commissioner, earlier this year asked the Supreme Court to direct Cofield to issue decisions in the cases which had been lingering. The high court then asked the state Appellate Court to handle the matter. On March 14, the Appellate Court directed Cofield to complete the decisions by April 1.
Cofield complied with the request, but still had to face the complaint before the Judicial Review Council. The 14-member panel of attorneys, judges and members of the public is tasked with investigating complaints against judges and handing down discipline. The group met in executive session on June 19, and voted to accept Cofield's offer to close the case.
Neither Katz nor other DCF officials responded to requests for comment last week. Officials with the Judicial Branch declined to comment. In March, however, Katz told the Law Tribune that she had felt compelled to request the court action that apparently led to Cofield's suspension. "I know it's unusual," Katz added. "It's unfortunate. I didn't do it lightly."
But, Katz said, "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."
It's not clear why the Judicial Review Council took up the matter. The council can either act on specific complaints or decide to take up cases on its own. Over the years, sanctions have been rare. In past years, the council has privately reprimanded a few judges who have missed the 120-day deadline for issuing written opinions. Last year, in the first public proceeding in several years, Superior Court Judge William Holden was suspended for 20 days for failing to write several decisions, thereby holding up the appeals of three inmates.
Commission chair Wayne R. Keeney said Cofield's punishment as approved by the council was intended to send a message that such delays in issuing decisions won't be tolerated. "I'm sure this got [her] attention," he said.
Willian Dow III, the New Haven criminal defense lawyer who represented Holden, said the Judicial Review Council has become more active in recent years. "This is a continuation of a trend of more vigorous scrutiny by the council into allegations against judges," Dow said.
Cofield's case was settled under an agreement in which there was a stipulation of facts by both parties, so no legal arguments were aired in the public session. Still, Cofield wanted time to speak, and read a long statement in which she described the challenges she has faced in her life. Although she did not link her biographical tale to the complaints against her, Cofield's goal seemed to be to explain why she wanted to be a judge.
"I grew up in the segregated South and attended segregated schools until the eleventh grade," she said. "It was not separate but equal. We never had new books; they were always used and sent over by the white school. However, we did have teachers who cared about us and who believed that we could succeed."
Cofield described further injustices. Because she is black, she was required to sit in the balcony of the movie theater. "We weren't allowed to swim at the public pool, except for on black-only swim days," she said. "We were not able to actually try on cloths in retail stores, lest the garments touch our skin."
In the small town of Enfield, N.C. where she grew up, Cofield said her family was well respected. Her father, Curtis Cofield, was the Baptist minister in the town, as well as a biology teacher at the local high school. Her mother was principal of the local elementary school. "My grandfather and his six brothers and one sister pretty much owned all of the homes lived in by the black people in town and they ran all of the businesses that served black people," she said. "The grocery store, a wood and coal yard, the mortuary, the Little Palace Restaurant and the bail bonds business."
Cofield said her life changed at age 12, when she observed "a humiliating racial event."
With Cofield in the car, her father pulled up to a drive-up window of a restaurant to order food, not thinking that ordering take-out would violate segregation laws. The family waited a long time for service before a white restaurant worker came out brandishing a broom and yelling racially-charged slurs. "This caught my Dad by surprise, and for a moment he was stunned and bowed his head out of being humiliated in front of his children," Cofield said. "I was 12 years old, sitting directly behind my Dad. Although I never said anything to either parent, I swore in my heart to change the laws that allowed people to treat me in this way. I guess you could say it was there that a judge was born."
Cofield further described how her family moved out of the South. After her father earned his master's degree in counseling at Columbia University, the family settled in New Haven, where her father was the pastor of the Immanuel Baptist Church.
Along the way, Cofield got involved in the Civil Rights movement. One of her first jobs was working to help children in New Haven as the education coordinator for a grassroots organization called the United Newhallville Community Organization. That type of work, and the desire to help others as a minister, led Cofield to attend and graduate from Yale Divinity School.
But she realized that becoming a minister as a woman, "was an uphill battle, even in my own father's church. So as soon as I graduated, I began law school at the University of Connecticut School of Law."
Cofield originally planned to be a defense lawyer, but changed her mind. "I knew I could never represent a drug dealer," she said. Her first job out of law school was working for the City of Hartford. Hubert Santos, one of her former law professors, was the newly appointed Corporation Counsel at the time. "That job at the Corporation Counsel's office was the springboard for my next position as a Deputy Assistant State's Attorney," Cofield said.
When she was appointed to the bench in 1991 as the first black woman to be named Superior Court judge, Cofield was overjoyed.
Over the next several years, she had several assignments in criminal courts in Waterbury, Manchester and New London. For several years, she presided in Hartford Community Court, which has been nationally recognized for its innovative handling of misdemeanor offenses, as well as juvenile, truancy and family court cases.
"I've been able to inspire and help a lot of people over the course of my career," Cofield said.
Several other people addressed the Judicial Review Countil to speak in support of Cofield's character. Among them, was former state Representative William Dyson of New Haven, who said he knows Cofield to be a person devoted to helping others in need. The people of the state, he said, "deserve to have her back on the bench."
Ramona Morcado-Espinoza, an assistant public defender who knew Cofield as an adversary years ago when the judge worked as a prosecutor, said Cofield is person of character. "I hold her in the highest regard," Morcado-Espinoza said.
Keeney, the Judicial Review Council chairman, said later he appreciated the statements that were made. At the same time, he said, the 30-day suspension for Cofield was an appropriate resolution as voted upon by the council.
After the hearing, Cofield said she is ready to move on. "I had hoped we could resolve this without any sanctions," she said, adding that the one-month suspension will take its toll on her family finances. "I'm glad to have this behind me."•