Ronald Japha ()
For as long as Bridgeport lawyer Ron Japha has been representing clients in his general practice, he has been helping judges.
When he got out of Dickinson School of Law in Pennsylvania in 1979, Japha’s first job was working in the research unit of the Connecticut Superior Court. He spent a year digging through state and federal court decisions to provide case law citations for judges in civil and criminal cases.
That sort of support for the court continued when Japha joined the general practice law firm Gordon & Scalo in 1980. He has kept busy handling everything from bankruptcy and foreclosures to the occasional criminal defense matter. But he’s kept busy in other ways, too.
His three-lawyer firm had a tradition in place, in which each volunteered as much time as they could providing pro bono service on an as-needed basis. Jumping in along with his partners Abe Gordon and Dick Scalo, Japha joined a program that provides free legal help for pro se litigants facing foreclosure.
For more than 15 years, he has also volunteered as a court-appointed fact finder, arbiter and attorney trial referee. Japha’s service for all of those years prompted court administrators to select him to be honored for his pro bono contributions. On June 19, Japha and other lawyers in each of the state’s judicial districts will be celebrated for their volunteer work at the Connecticut Law Tribune’s Honors Night.
“I got a call from Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis telling me I’d been selected,” Japha said. “It was a surprise. I’m humbled and happy to be considered for this honor. It’s just something I do to help the court and I’ve never expected anything from it beyond trying to help. I’m honored the Judicial Branch thinks I’m worthy of being considered.”
Drew Cacuzza, a court planner who works in the case flow department of the Judicial Branch, said court administrators rely on nonjudicial officers to assist judges by handling parts of civil or criminal disputes. The nonjudicial officers are called on in a variety of ways. While state law provides for these court-appointed lawyers to earn up to $20 an hour or $100 a day, most, including Japha, do the work for free.
There are 60 of them helping out in Bridgeport alone. But Cacuzza said Japha stands out.
“He’s the first one I think of,” Cacuzza said. “I have been here for 15 years, and Ron has been volunteering for the court as an attorney trial referee since before that. Ron is always there for me, and he always takes my phone calls.”
Attorney trial referees are typically called on when parties agree they would like to resolve a case, but don’t want to wait for the case to be assigned to a judge. The ATR will preside over civil disputes, which by law must fall under $50,000 in damages sought.
In a proceeding that’s typically shorter than a jury trial, the ATR will be presented with evidence and hear closing argument from both sides. The ATR will then render a recommended opinion.
It is up to the Superior Court judge to whom the case was assigned by the clerk’s office to decide whether to follow the recommendation. If the judge disagrees, the parties proceed to a bench or jury trial. “In both those ATR cases, and arbitration cases, they’re trying to settle a case, that’s the goal,” Cacuzza said.
As an volunteer arbitrator in the Judicial Branch, Japha will preside as a neutral referee for pro se litigants who are trying to resolve civil or family court cases. He will make recommendations, which lead to either settlements to be approved by the court, or trials. “It makes you feel good if you are able to help someone resolve their case,” Japha said.
When he is called on to serve as a fact finder, it is often just a quick issue the court wants resolved before a case is resumed before the regular judge. For instance, if there is a trespassing claim in a property-line dispute, Japha might be called on to hear evidence and decide where the property line is located.
One way the arbitration or attorney trial referee cases differ from a bench trial is the referee rarely finds out how the case ultimately turns out. Court administrators say judges adhere to an ATR’s decision about 50 percent of the time. “The only time an arbitrator or ATR finds out about an outcome is if they call me to find out,” Cacuzza said. “And that rarely happens.”
In addition to “always answering the phone,” Japha stands out as a volunteer arbitrator, Cacuzza said, “because of his demeanor.”
“He has a perfect demeanor for being an arbitrator,” Cacuzza said. “He has the experience and the knowledge of the law. You want someone who is easy going, relaxed, but also who knows what they are doing. He has both.”