As he sat in the Connecticut Supreme Court courtroom for the last time on Sept. 28, Justice Dennis Eveleigh joked the overflow crowd came for his send-off.
Eveleigh’s last case happened to be one of the most watched in Connecticut in years, and focused on supposed inequities in the state’s education funding. After he listened to Chief Justice Chase Rogers praise him for his intellect, guidance and wit, the outgoing justice quipped he had no idea his last day would be so popular.
The Stamford native, who’s been an attorney or a judge since 1972, hit the mandatory retirement age of 70 on Oct. 2.
Eveleigh sat down with the Connecticut Law Tribune to discuss the cases that affected him personally and emotionally, the tendencies of attorneys that rubbed him and fellow justices the wrong way, and his advice for those making their first appearance before the court.
Answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Q: In your 19 years as a judge, what’s one case that impacted you the most?
A: When I was sitting in juvenile court in Danbury, I had a case that came before me involving a young mother in her 20s. She had two children. One was 5 years old and the other 6 weeks old.
She took the infant to the pediatrician for a check up. The doctor looked at the child on the examining table and said something was off. He said to take the child right away to the hospital for X-rays. They took X-rays and, as it turned out, every bone in the child’s body was broken.
The hospital, being a mandated reporter, called the Department of Children and Families, which took the child into their custody. They also took the 5-year-old. So, eventually the case comes before me for trial on whether to terminate the parental rights.
We had five experts witnesses from the state during the trial who said this was clearly child abuse. All the experts for the parents said these were not new fractures, and they came from childbirth.
We also had the obstetrician who delivered the child and had been practicing at the time for 35 years. He said this was the hardest delivery he had and that he could not extract the baby from the birth canal. He tried everything he could and exerted all the pressure he could to get the baby out. He saved the baby’s life.
I concluded the injuries were caused during birth and returned the children to the parents. I checked every year after that and there were never any problems. The child now is in high school and the oldest child is graduating college.
Q: Take us behind the scenes at the Connecticut Supreme Court and tell us about the process to decide a case, and how you determine who writes the decision?
A: After a case is argued, we take a preliminary vote. The chief justice assigns someone in the majority of that preliminary vote to write the majority opinion.
After that, the majority opinion is worked on and circulated among the justices. They will either sign on, disagree, or there might be a dissenting opinion and a concurring opinion. Those will be circulated, too. Nothing is final until it’s actually published.
This process can take a while depending on the nature of the case. Sometimes we get opinions out within a couple of months, and sometimes it takes longer. A lot of times it depends on whether there are a lot of concurring and dissenting opinions.
Q: What are some attorney personality traits that are frowned upon by the justices?
A: Number one, interrupting the justices asking a question. That is not good form. Number two, not answering the question and trying every way you can to not answer it after you’ve been asked three or four times.
We do not run into this a lot, but taking a combative style is also not great form.
I’ll add another one which happened a few times on the Supreme Court: That is not knowing what you put in your own briefs.
Q: What is your advice for an attorney making their first appearance before the Connecticut Supreme Court?
A: Know your case thoroughly. And, when I say thoroughly, know every case you cite and know every case your opponent cites, and be able to distinguish them.
Go through mock sessions. Even if you are a solo practitioner, get someone to help in those mock sessions. Have some friends question you as if they were sitting on the court to prepare you for your presentation.
Obviously, there is no substitute for thorough preparation. Be aware of the court’s procedures.
My advice to someone just starting out who has never argued is come watch arguments so you see what goes on – and not just one argument here and there – see where the justices are coming from, and observe.
Another fairly obvious but overlooked tip – the acoustics. They are not great in the courtroom.
There are few attorneys we can actually hear without the benefit of a microphone. If you need the microphone, make sure you are talking into it. The tendency with any trial attorney is to want to move to express the point. But as you move, you are going away from the mic, and it’s harder to hear you.
Q: Are there any genre of cases that you prefer to hear and why?
A: I enjoy the gamut. All the cases that came before us I found were interesting, I enjoyed them all. I don’t want to single one out because the cases are so important to the litigants and the attorneys that come before you. I would not want to put one ahead of the other.