A portrait of retiring Connecticut Bankruptcy Judge Albert Dabrowski (left) painted by artist Gerald York (right) will be unveiled in a ceremony on April 20. (Gerald P. York)
Albert Dabrowski might have had a very different career had he not gotten off to an especially early start one morning in 1973. He planned to drive from Washington, D.C., where he worked for the Department of Justice, to a job interview with the U.S. attorney in Boston. Boston was a second choice after Dabrowski had been told the U.S. attorney in Connecticut was not hiring. But he was running ahead of schedule and decided to make a pit stop.
“At 8 a.m. I’m driving by Bridgeport,” he recalled. “I see the federal building and I said: ‘What the hell? I’ve got two or three hours to kill.’ I go and knock on the door of the [Connecticut] U.S. attorney’s office.”
Circumstances had changed. The office was looking to hire a prosecutor who held top-secret clearance, a key requirement in a state that was and remains home to large defense contractors. Dabrowski fit the bill and he was hired practically on the spot.
Thus began a journey that eventually saw Dabrowski appointed U.S. attorney for Connecticut and then serve 22 years as a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge. Dabrowski retired last month. On April 20, Connecticut’s bankruptcy bar will honor him by unveiling his official portrait at a ceremony in Hartford.
Looking back, Dabrowski believes that his professional philosophy was shaped by two experiences predating his legal career. While attending the University of Connecticut, he held a job as a truck driver delivering construction materials for the Prudential Tower in Boston. Then, before law school, he worked for United Aircraft on a team that built environmental systems for the space program. Dabrowski recalled marveling at the tasks accomplished by people working together toward a common goal.
“I recognized the significance of assembling a team [of the] best and brightest people and then just going with the flow,” he said. “One of the reasons I had some success was my recognition and ability to surround myself with good people.”
Dabrowski remembered this lesson as a federal prosecutor in Connecticut. He was selected to lead the team that prosecuted members of the Puerto Rican nationalist group Los Macheteros for their involvement in the 1983 robbery of a Wells Fargo depot in West Hartford. The heist netted more than $7 million in what the government described as terrorism and the Hartford Courant labeled “Connecticut’s greatest political crime.” Dabrowski concentrated on the case exclusively from 1985 through 1989.
“The first thing I did when I hit that case was I [recruited] a team of people that I still think is one of the best prosecution teams ever assembled in the country,” he recalled. “And then I just sat back and let them loose.”
Prosecutors indicted 19 people in connection with the robbery. In 1989, the ringleader was sentenced to 65 years in prison. The following year, the Justice Department recognized Dabrowski’s efforts with the John Marshall Award for outstanding professional achievement.
In 1991, President George H.W. Bush appointed Dabrowski U.S. attorney for Connecticut. Then, at the end of Bush’s presidency, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit chose Dabrowski to fill a newly created third bankruptcy judgeship in this state. As an attorney with more than two decades of federal litigation experience, Dabrowski felt prepared to don the black robe. But there was one hitch: he had never practiced bankruptcy law. Again, he relied on his team-building philosophy.
Before taking the bench, Dabrowski resolved to find a clerk with bankruptcy experience. He interviewed numerous candidates, but none had practiced bankruptcy law. It was then that a young lawyer named Mark Sanders happened to bump into a district court clerk in a restaurant and learned Dabrowski was hiring. Sanders was a bankruptcy practitioner and had previously clerked for two bankruptcy judges. That night, Sanders called Dabrowski’s office, thinking of leaving a message. To Sanders’ surprise, at around 10 p.m., Dabrowski, then still U.S. attorney, answered.
“It turned out, I was going to be there all night,” Dabrowski recalled. “I was working on a wiretap application. So I said [to Sanders], ‘What are you doing right now? Can you come over now?’ He came over. I talked to him for an hour and then I offered him the job on the spot.”
Sanders would go on to clerk for Dabrowski for 15 years. Dabrowski said that Sanders’ bankruptcy experience was invaluable. “For the first many years, he literally held my hand in everything I did,” Dabrowski said. “He was a perfect law clerk for me. I would generally come to the right conclusion and Mark would tell me in bankruptcy terms how it came out that way.”
Dabrowski began his judicial career sitting in Bridgeport. He then worked out of New Haven from 1995 to 2008, and from 2008 through this winter he sat in Hartford. He remains the only bankruptcy judge who has sat in each of the District of Connecticut’s three divisions. He was chief bankruptcy judge from 2003 to 2010 and again from 2013 to 2014.
Connecticut bankruptcy practitioners said they will miss practicing before Dabrowski. “He read the pleadings that counsel submitted in advance of the hearing, listened to the argument of counsel, asked thoughtful questions and, at the end of the day, substantial justice was done in his court,” said Elizabeth Austin, who chairs Pullman & Comley’s bankruptcy practice.
Dabrowski presided over numerous complex bankruptcies involving hospitals, nursing homes and other health care institutions. He noted that these cases involved people beyond the ordinary creditor, debtor and trustee constituencies. If a nursing home were to shut down, elderly residents would need to be moved. If a hospital were unable to pay its suppliers, deliveries of medicines could be interrupted.
Zeisler & Zeisler partner Stephen Kindseth frequently represents parties in health care-related bankruptcies and noted the consideration Dabrowski gave to issues implicating patient care. “These needs may not have fit neatly within the bankruptcy construct of maintaining economic value,” Kindseth said, “but Judge Dabrowski was always extremely sensitive to them nonetheless and did whatever he could within the confines of the Bankruptcy Code to reach some accommodation.”
The Connecticut Bar Association is holding a reception April 20 at 3:30 p.m. at the Hartford Downtown Marriott to celebrate Dabrowski’s career and unveil his official portrait. Portraitist Gerald York painted the judge; York previously painted portraits of current U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Alan Shiff and former U.S. Bankruptcy Judges Robert Krechevsky and Lorraine Weil, all of which hang in bankruptcy courtrooms in this state.
York said his portraits aim to capture each subject’s personality. For Dabrowski, York said he looked to express “something of [his] intellect, courage, strength and resilience.” The judge said his chief requirement for the portrait was that it include an American flag.
The portrait was commissioned by the CBA Commercial Law & Bankruptcy Section’s Portrait Committee, which is comprised of Austin; Matthew Beatman, of Zeisler & Zeisler; and Thomas Gugliotti, of Updike, Kelly & Spellacy. The Portrait Committee also organized the unveiling later this month, which will feature remarks from judges from the Bankruptcy Court, District Court and Second Circuit. Also speaking will be Sanders, the longtime clerk who is now a shareholder practicing bankruptcy law at a Tulsa, Oklahoma, firm.
“I’m honored to be part of it,” Sanders said. “I’ve practiced in four states now. I’ve seen very few judges who really have the patience to indicate that they ever practiced law or had empathy for those who did. Judge Dabrowski has always had that. I don’t think anyone ever left his courtroom thinking that he did not give them a fair airing of their views.”
Asked which cases stand out from his years on the bench, Dabrowski spoke first about the thousands and thousands of personal filings, cases that he said typically involve “plain people who for health reasons or for loss of a job are in bankruptcy.”
“I consider those cases just as important as the major Chapter 11 [commercial reorganizations],” he said. “You’re dealing with some of those people’s lives.”
Evan Goldstein, a shareholder at Updike, Kelly & Spellacy and chairman of the CBA’s Commercial Law and Bankruptcy Section, noted the care that Dabrowski put into every case. Whether he “was deciding a small consumer matter or conducting a bench trial in a large Chapter 11 case,” Goldstein said, “Judge Dabrowski was always prepared, gave the parties an opportunity to be heard, was respectful and provided the attorney, client or pro se litigant with his undivided attention.”