Janet C. Hall (John Marinelli)
Just two weeks after U.S. District Judge Janet Hall took over as the administrative leader of the state’s federal court, she was thrown into the middle of the budgetary impasse in Washington.
Under the cloud of an imminent government shutdown, the chief judge was put in a position of having to consider which of the court’s already overworked and underpaid staffers were essential to the administration of justice.
She was saved from having to make that call, which would have furloughed court’s 56 employees, including court clerks, information technology specialists and other support workers, when the sequester was lifted on Oct. 15. “We dodged the bullet,” Hall said.
In a recent interview, Hall talked about the chief judge’s role and the future of Connecticut’s federal courts. Hall expressed hope there would be fewer funding challenges moving forward, and more positive developments that would benefit lawyers and other parties.
When a new federal judge, Jeffery Meyer, was confirmed last month to fill a vacancy, Hall said she saw a light at the end of the tunnel. In addition to having a full eight-judge court for the first time since 2012, Hall said she learned that money cut from the Connecticut court’s budget a few years ago has been restored.
The additional funding will allow for needed capital improvements that will soon be made to the court’s aging phone and computer systems. “There were some things with IT that we weren’t able to get done, and now we can do them,” she said.
At the same time, she said, another judge vacancy will be created soon, as U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton announced she will be moving to senior judge status. But Hall has a can-do attitude to any challenge that being short a judge will create once again. “I’m confident we will get through it,” she said. “I’m sure we will be able to cut through the backlog.”
Lawyers who appear in federal court say that Hall and the other federal court officials with keeping the court running as well as possible through times of financial and judicial shortages.
Among them is Jonathan Orleans, a Pullman & Comley lawyer and member of the Connecticut Bar Association’s Federal Practice Section. “My sense is that the chief clerk, Robin Tabora, and Chief Judge Janet Hall did a terrific job of getting through the financial crunch,” Orleans said. “And now that the funding spigot appears to be turned on again, the district appears to be moving ahead with some projects that had been delayed.”
Hall took over as chief judge from Alvin Thompson, who remains a federal court judge.
Being chief judge brings mixed blessings. There’s the opportunity to make a contribution. But at the same time, the role can be overwhelming. Even with her administrative responsiblities, Hall continues to run a full docket, presiding over a mix of civil and criminal cases in her New Haven courtroom.
Just two weeks ago, she concluded a three-week-long criminal trial. In December, Hall made a ruling that dismissed the National Shooting Sport Foundation’s challenge to new Connecticut gun laws passed in response to the school shootings in Sandy Hook. “I stay busy,” Hall said, simply.
Hall grew up in Lowell, Mass., part of a large family of lawyers. Her father and uncles were attorneys, as is her husband, David R. Schaefer. After graduating from New York University Law School, she landed in Connecticut, where her husband is from. They raised their children here, near Schaefer’s parents. “It was wonderful,” Hall said.
All the while, Hall worked for 17 years as a litigator at Robinson & Cole. In 1997, when she was nominated to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton, Hall became one of two women on the federal court in Connecticut.
Hall sees the role of chief judge as an opportunity to “make things run better.”
Cases are assigned by the clerk’s office and each judge manages his or her own docket. But Hall calls meetings on a regular basis to discuss with other judges a variety of topics, including caseloads and changes to local court rules and federal law. Many of the meetings, which include Tabora, the clerk, focus on court budgets and spending.
Both Tabora and Hall serve on the court’s budget committee. Tabora said because of lagging salaries, it has been difficult retaining support people. “We had four people resign from out IT department last year, and when people leave,” Tabora said. It has been haven’t difficult to fill the positions because of budget cuts.
She’s hopeful a restoration of funding coming to the court will allow them to hire “for a couple of positions.”
“A lot of projects in the court had to be postponed because of funding,” Tabora said. One of those projects, a new phone system, is now being worked on because the Office of Administrative Services for the federal courts agreed to pay for the upgrades.
Another project that is expected to proceed is the continued implementation of “high-tech courtrooms,” including “smart podiums” that allow lawyers to play videos for jurors and share documents on screens in the courtroom.
Currently, six of 18 federal courtrooms in the state are outfitted with the technology. With new money coming in, Tabora expects more of the courtrooms to be modernized in the next year, at a cost of about $150,000 each.
“It’s important that we complete the upgrades, because the trials are able to move quicker in high tech courtooms,” Tabora said. “By showing documents on a screen, it’s less disruptive, it hold the attention of the jurors better, because they’re not passing papers around.”•