Colin Tait (Thomas B. Scheffey)
From the late 1970s through 1999, the first thing that many Connecticut lawyers did at trial was to take out a slim orange book and place it on the counsel table.
It was professor Colin Tait’s “Handbook of Connecticut Evidence.”
“This was the reference that everybody used, in the bar and on the bench; the starting point for any discussion of evidence,” said Robert Adelman, a Bridgeport trial lawyer and evidence law scholar. “That was the evidence bible until the [new] code took effect on Jan. 1, 2000.”
Tait, over a long career as a lawyer and law professor, made a career of the rules of evidence. His scholarship and service, distilling thousands of Connecticut court decisions for the essence of evidence law, helped create a collection of rules that was accessible to all. For his considerable contributions to the law, Tait is being honored June 19 with the Publisher’s Award at the Law Tribune’s Honors Night ceremony.
It has only been a year since Tait moved from Connecticut to be closer to one of his three sons, a Vermont school teacher. The Law Tribune caught up with him at home in suburban Montpelier, Vt., where he lives with his wife, Deborah.
At a guest’s request, Tait piled his coffee table with the original orange volume and a half dozen expanded editions. His $250 books proved to be so authoritative that they formed the foundation for the new, white Evidence Code pamphlet now sold by the Judicial Branch for a mere $15. “He worked his way out of a job,” Adelman said of Tate. “I think that’s pretty cool, but I’m not sure his publisher felt the same way.”
Beyond the Law Tribune award, this has been a good month for Tait. On June 6, the Tait-inspired evidence code received a kind of universal legitimacy in the form of a new statute that establishes the code as sound Connecticut law.
Also, earlier on June 19, the University of Connecticut School of Law plans to dedicate a recently planted white oak in Tait’s honor. It is an apt tribute, says Timothy Everett, the criminal law professor organizing the ceremony. In addition to being a legal scholar, Tait has been an outdoorsman, tennis and squash player and lover of nature.
Tait commuted to the law school campus from rural Litchfield County, sometimes by bicycle, said colleague Lewis Kurlantzick, who teaches copyright law. No cloistered academic, Tait helped run a summer camp in the off-season. When organizing annual campus spruce-up and planting campaigns, he would sign his memos, “Mr. Green Jeans,” Everett said. Tait requested that his tree be planted early in the spring—for the roots’ sake.
Tait was born in New York City and raised in New Jersey and comes from a family that pursued industrious and colorful business ventures, such as his grandfather Tait’s Virginia seed company and his great uncles’ stained glass business, the J&R Lamb Co. His mother, Katharine Lamb Tait, was an accomplished stained-glass artist at the company, creating windows for churches.
When Tait graduated from New Jersey’s Tenafly High School in 1950, the Korean War was on, and he joined ROTC while a history major at Cornell University. After two years in the Air Force, Tait decided to use the GI Bill of Rights to go to Yale Law School, where he excelled, becoming a law review editor and earning the Order of the Coif for scholarship.
Recently married and with a child on the way, Tait joined Robinson & Cole in Hartford, and made partner in five years. Tait was actually alarmed at how fast business was booming at the firm. It had 18 lawyers when he was hired, and hit 27 seven years later, unheard of growth for a Hartford firm back then. (Robinson & Cole now has more than 200 lawyers.)
“I said to myself, ‘Think, Colin, is this really what you want to do with your life? Spend the next 30 years in a big law firm on the 40th floor of a hermetically sealed building?’”
Instead, he accepted the invitation to become a UConn law professor. When he phoned to tell his father in New Jersey that he was leaving a big firm to teach at UConn, there was a moment of silence, and then a simple query: “Are you sure you want to take a job in Alaska?”
At the time, in 1966, the law school, now in Hartford, was still in West Hartford and it had yet to rise to a level of prominence. Tait quips that he was “a small frog in a small puddle.” However, over the decades, he said, “the school grew bigger, much less parochial, with national ambitions, clinical programs. New deans, new money, new buildings.”
Tait taught evidence and torts, and began helping senior evidence professor Joseph LaPlante with a Connecticut evidence handbook. LaPlante was hindered by an illness—Parkinson’s disease. Tait ended up doing so much of the work that it was only fair to call the volume Tait and LaPlante’s “Handbook on Evidence,” with the younger professor’s name first.
By the third edition, LaPlante’s name was dropped. The current fifth edition of the hefty handbook, coauthored by Appellate Judge Eliot Prescott, “is my swan song,” Tait explains. He is also the author, with Prescott, of the 420-page “Connecticut Appellate Practice and Procedure,” now in its third edition.
In person, Tait seems very much his old self, but he warns a visitor that he now has been diagnosed with early stage Parkinson’s disease, and is concerned about his balance and speech.
He’s always had a rapid, clipped delivery. Students have complained that Tait can be tough to follow—unless they’re mentally jogging at his side. Paul Chill, associate UConn law dean, studied under Tait. “Yes, he often doesn’t finish a sentence, but it’s only because he’s so excited to get on to the next one,” Chill said.
Tait’s excitement was infectious, even about the driest of subjects, said Chill. “I’m a procedural maven, and I sat in his classes enraptured.”
Tait says he was induced to concentrate on evidence law “because it’s so logical—or so illogical. There’s a theory behind every one of these crazy rules.”
The rule of relevance, as a requirement for admissibility, is pure logic, he says. “The dog bites you. Has he bitten other people? Suppose he bit some sheep. Biting people is different from biting sheep. Is evidence of sheep biting relevant?”
But other rules are more complex. Like the hearsay rule, which has more than 20 exceptions.
Shifting comfortably into a professorial mode, Tait observes, “almost all those hearsay evidence rules are historians’ rules: Talk to original sources. Don’t take copies if you can find the originals. Produce the document if there is one, get the best evidence available, but don’t keep out the good because there’s something better.”
The logic of hearsay can be tricky, as Tait demonstrates. “I poll my class: What’s your name? Hearsay. What do you call yourself? Not hearsay. You do know what you call yourself.
“So look at the question. Could you testify what your birth certificate says? No. Give me the birth certificate, if that’s what you want. What does your passport say? Well, show me the damn passport, don’t tell me what’s on it.”
He concludes: “The hearsay rule will live forever,” he said, adding that if it were up to him he would give judges a bit more discretion on whether to accept such evidence. But, he adds, it’s so traditional that judges and lawyers would “cry” if hearsay rules were abolished.
And then there is the propriety of impeachment. How far should a lawyer go to question whether a witness is credible. Is it right to ask if a distant cousin is a mobster? “Some poor people get called into court as witnesses in criminal cases and get really torn apart by counsel for the defense. You need bounds,” Tait explained.
“Hearsay, relevance, impeachment—these topics kept me happy for years.”
Throughout the 1990s, Tait was involved in a legislative and judicial project that involved turning the case law-based rules of evidence into an evidence code. Tait did much of the heavy work of the committee, which met monthly and leaned heavily on that thin, orange handbook.
By 1999, the draft code was ready, and was adopted as formal court rules at the annual meeting of the Judges of the Superior Court, the court system’s formal rule-making body, and became effective Jan. 1, 2000.
But to Tait’s distress, in 2008 the state Supreme Court ruled, in State v. DeJesus, that it could redesign the evidence rules as part of its decision-making role. This called into question the legal integrity of the 8-year-old evidence code at all levels of the court system.
Tait, in the 2010 supplement of his book, sounded his own alarm, saying that it was now time for the Supreme Court to clear up one basic question: “Which branch of government has the constitutional power to enact a code of evidence?”
Some of those questions may be moot now. On June 6, Gov. Dannel Malloy signed a bill, which was backed by the Judicial Branch, that authorizes the Supreme Court itself—not the Judges of the Superior Court—to adopt the code of evidence.
Tait said he considers this bill “a step in the right direction.”
For Tait, improving the legal system is in keeping with his view of a law professor’s role in the larger society. Many of his colleagues have cited his reputation for unbiased integrity. This led to special outside assignments. In 1994, he was appointed to be the special master in the vote recount of a hotly contested congressional race involving U.S. Rep. Samuel Gejdenson.
In a Connecticut Bar Journal article the next year, Tait urged his fellow law professors to initiate or contribute to law reform, mediate disputes, write key amicus briefs, draft legislation, and author “books and articles helpful to judges, lawyers and legislators.”
In 1999, when Tait retired from full-time teaching, he was praised by a fellow law professor, the late Terry Tondro, for his career of doing, as well as teaching. Colin Tait, Tondro said, has been simply a “good citizen, inspiring and enthusiastic teacher, responsible lawyer and trusted colleague.” •