Legislators use calendar to kill a judge’s career
The House of Representatives stripped Superior Court Judge Jane B. Emons of her job Friday. There was no debate, no vote, no fingerprints. Her eight-year term expired at midnight, when Emons became the first judge in recent history — perhaps ever — forced from the bench in Connecticut by legislative inaction.
Emons lost her job without the legislature’s reaching a formal conclusion about her fitness. Critics who testified against Emons, whose judicial career was spent presiding over divorces and child custody cases in family courts, initially were unpersuasive: The legislature’s Judiciary Committee endorsed her confirmation in February on a vote of 30 to 3.
But complaints about Emons’ courtroom demeanor, especially dealing with litigants who cannot afford lawyers, continued to reach legislators, initiating a second ad hoc review by individual lawmakers and the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. One of the complaints came from a legislative staffer deeply unhappy with her treatment by Emons.
Whether or not Emons deserved another term, the episode has become a source of second-guessing by legislators who wonder if the General Assembly failed the judge and her critics alike by refusing to debate her fitness and their complaints — ducking a difficult decision by running out the clock.
“It’s a fair question,” said House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, a lawyer and former vice chair of the Judiciary Committee.
Judge Patrick Carroll, the chief court administrator, made a final appeal Friday to House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, to call a vote on Emons, even if it meant her rejection. Other judges emailed him in recent days, making similar appeals.
The idea that a judicial career can be destroyed without a debate or vote in the General Assembly has jolted judges, who can serve until reaching the mandatory age of 70 — so long as they are confirmed for a new term every eight years.
“They rely on the process to be fair. She didn’t really have an opportunity to respond to the concerns after the public hearing,” said Melissa Farley, the executive director of external affairs for the court system. “This is sending chills through the judicial system.”
Emons, 67, of Woodbridge, was appointed to the bench in 2010 by Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, on the recommendation of her local state senator, a Democrat. Emons was an assistant attorney general at the time and had previously been a state prosecutor. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy nominated her for a second term.
Her nomination has been on the calendar and ready for action by the House of Representatives since Feb. 21. But leadership never scheduled a vote, and the Judiciary Committee never called Emons back for questioning about complaints received after her confirmation hearing.
“It’s very unusual,” said Rep. Arthur J. O’Neill of Southbury, a lawyer who was elected 30 years ago and now is the longest-serving Republican in the House. “It’s kind of a bizarre situation.”
“It seems to be unprecedented,” said Rep. Rosa Rebimbas of Naugatuck, the ranking House Republican on the Judiciary Committee. “I haven’t seen a case like this.”
The fall of Jane Emons comes as family court judges, who in the best of times are dealing with litigants under emotional duress, face new and harsher scrutiny on blogs and social media. One anonymous blogger has repeatedly heaped anti-Semitic slurs against family-law judges and lawyers, including Emons, who mentioned during her confirmation she was the daughter and granddaughter of Jewish refugees.
“I note this not only from a sense of pride in my heritage, but also because of the existence of a blog and other social media posts against me, against other judges, against some of you personally, and against other dedicated state employees that are both anti-Semitic and violent in tone,” Emons said. “I am saddened by those attacks, but I am confident that they will not interfere with the important work that you are doing here today.”
They did interfere, though not in predictable ways.
Initially, the attacks benefitted Emons, as did the legislature’s long experience with family court critics, some of whom undermine their credibility with conspiracy theories, claims of judges being in league with pedophiles, and incidents in which the lives of judges have been threatened. One critic was arrested at a confirmation hearing. Another was accused of harassing judges, including Emons, with late night phone calls.
Recoiling from the anti-Semitic rhetoric they saw directed at Emons, some legislators seemed reluctant to aggressively question her about complaints she could be abrupt and impatient with financially pressed litigants trying to resolve custody or child-support issues without legal representation.
“There have been a couple of situations, no doubt, where I’m sure I did cross the line,” Emons told legislators. “I felt that it was important to maintain the decorum and order in the courtroom. Upon retrospect, I’m sure I could have done it differently.”
Sen. Edwin A. Gomes, D-Bridgeport, did tell her he was troubled by the 29 complaints filed against her with the Judicial Review Council, an unusually high number that he saw as a red flag. She said nine were filed by one litigant, and all were dismissed as unfounded.
She had significant support at the hearing from lawyers — including Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven.
“Honestly, I have been shocked by the vitriolic, racist, anti-Semitic, and hateful nature of some of the opposition to Judge Emons’ reappointment. I’ve known Judge Emons for many years and I know her to be a person of exceptional intellect and integrity,” Looney said.
Looney reinforced the committee’s general skepticism toward litigants upset with family-court judges.
“Emotions run high in the family court, as we know, and even the most thoughtful decisions can leave families in emotional disarray,” Looney said. “However, if we do not stand behind family division judges who do their jobs with thoughtful compassion and in good faith,there will be very few judges willing to take on these challenging assignments. I urge the Judiciary Committee to reconfirm Judge Emons and to resist this wave of vitriolic hatred. If she is not granted reconfirmation, not only does Connecticut lose an extraordinary jurist, it also loses a battle in the ongoing struggle for judicial independence free of attempted coercion and intimidation.”
But Rep. Chris Rosario, D-Bridgeport, chair of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, and one of its members, Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said the stories about Emons kept coming in, stories from constituents disconnected from the organized community of family-court critics. They described a judge who was abrasive, even abusive.
“It kept on growing and growing,” Rosario said. “We kept on doing our research, and the noises got louder and louder.”
Winfield, a non-lawyer on the Judiciary Committee, said the Emons nomination reinforced longstanding concerns about the ability of the part-time legislature to adequately examine the fitness of judges up for reappointment. Winfield said he found the complaints about Emons credible and troubling, but he was not happy at the prospect of seeing her removed from the bench without a vote.
“It’s a terrible way to go,” he said.
The strong opposition from the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus — and the promise of a long debate — was a disincentive for the House leadership to call a vote Friday. The legislature’s constitutional adjournment deadline for the regular session is Wednesday.
Senate Republican leader Len Fasano of North Haven said the press of time and the prospect of a difficult debate was no excuse to deny Emons a vote.
“I don’t think it’s right that someone should not be reappointed by virtue of no legislative action. I understand there are feelings on both sides of the fence. I get that, a lot of people are very torn. But that’s our job.”
Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford, the co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, said the committee has no established process for calling back a judicial nominee for further questioning, but he and other legislators had communicated the complaints about Emons to the Judicial Branch and governor’s office.
Emons was free to contact legislators to reassure them about her temperament and address specific complaints, but she did not, Tong said. Emons declined a request for comment.
“Every eight years, you have to stand and deliver within the time allotted to you,” Tong said. “If you don’t make the most of it and there are issues, you’re going to face some challenges.”
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