Superior Court Judge Leslie Olear recently came within a hair of being out of a job when her reappointment after eight years in office succeeded in the House of Representatives on a close vote of 78-67.
And why was the vote so close? Not, we understand, because her competence, judicial demeanor or hard work was in question. Rather, she had the bad luck to be assigned to the family docket at a time when a small group of embittered family court litigants wanted to make a statement about alleged problems in the family court concerning the appointment, cost, and supervision of guardians ad litem and decided to use a judicial reconfirmation hearing as a forum to do so.
The point of this editorial is not to address whatever shortcomings there may be in the operation of the family courts and how they can be solved. The point of this editorial is to address the grave implications for judicial independence in voting against the reappointment of a sitting judge in order to make a statement about something other than the judge’s fitness to continue in office.
Judicial independence is one of the cornerstones of a free society. Judicial independence cannot be had in a society where the judges have to worry about their job for reasons unrelated to their fitness for office. Courts are the place where disputes, often bitter and emotional, must be resolved if we are not to descend to the rule of the mightiest. Bitter and emotional litigants occasionally band together in small but highly organized groups to attack judges who do not do what the groups want. Legislators at confirmation hearings need to understand that highly vocal groups of litigants often are not interested in the qualifications of the judge under attack or in what to them are abstract notions of judicial independence – they want the judge removed from office because they do not like certain of the judge’s results even though the judge was just doing the job.
When our state Constitution was adopted in 1818, judges were given permanent tenure to age 70. In the mid-1850s, the Know Nothing party was briefly in power in Connecticut and the Constitution was amended to provide for eight-year terms. But since that time, the legislature has properly been very hesitant to deny reappointment to sitting judges. With two notorious exceptions during the Civil War, when two Democratic judges were not reappointed simply because they were not Republicans, the handful of reappointment denials has almost always been limited to issues concerning competence, judicial temperament or violations of law.•