By Jesse Duthrie
In an office in the Capitol building, twelve men and women sit around a table with a stack of papers in front of them. This is the Judicial Selection Commission, and the papers they are reading are applications for judgeships in the state of Connecticut. If the candidates make it past the Commission, they will enter a list few Connecticut citizens know about but hundreds of lawyers want to be on.
The road to a judgeship is long, and any attorney attempting to make the transition must follow a tightly orchestrated series of events that allow them to be seen as the best possible candidate. It begins with the 20-page judicial application, which probes the person’s law experience, political affiliations, opinions on ethics of law, etc. Furthermore, it asks the attorneys to state some of their most notable cases. Before a man or woman can walk into the Judicial Selection Commission for the in-person interview, they have to have the right credentials on paper.
Each applicant may or may not be working with a slight secrecy as to their intentions. William Dyson, the former chair of the Judicial Selection Commission, explains why there is often secrecy during the application process: “For a lot of these people, if their law firms were to find out that they were looking to leave the firm to become a judge, they would not be so sympathetic towards the attorney. They might not give them big cases. Or they might just kind of sideline the attorney. No firm wants to invest time and resources into an employee who may be taking off at any moment.”
That secrecy is often broken, however, because six references are requested. These references, as written on the judicial application, should be the closest colleagues working alongside the candidate in the field of law. It is no surprise if those men and women turned out to be members of the same firm. Once the Judicial Selection Commission contacts these references, secrecy of applying may or may not go through the window.
It’s a sacrifice. On one hand they have their law careers. It’s safe to assume that the applicant has had a fairly stable and successful legal profession. Along with success comes money, which may be left behind in order to pursue judgeship. On the other hand, these candidates are applying for one of the most legally challenging positions in the state. Judges receive less pay than most accomplished attorneys, and the responsibilities of the judges are immense and tested on a daily basis.
For most, the prestige and honor of the position is reason enough to apply. Yet that doesn’t negate the benefits of serving as a judge. Like other state employees, judge positions come with comfortable retirement packages as well as full health benefits. Connecticut General Statute e 51-50a establishes the eligibility of a judge to retire at age sixty-five, or after twenty years of service as a judge, or after a total of thirty years of state service credit.
Robert S. Bello, the current chair of the state’s Judicial Selection Commission, mentions that, “Most of these men and women applying for judgeship aren’t doing it for the money. Many of them have had good careers in law and have made enough money to be satisfied. Some people take on the career path of a judge as a moral or civil responsibility.” Yet other motives can be speculated upon. The path of judgeship may start low, perhaps in small claims or appellate court, but could give an aspiring political person the means to develop a background suited for higher political office.
The motives of each judge are tested thoroughly before they will sit upon a judge’s seat. Although it remains confidential how many judges the Judicial Selection Commission chooses each year, it is confirmed by Mr. Bello that roughly 40 attorneys attempt to make it through to judgeship per year. Only a handful makes it to the next round of selection. The twelve commission members see through any ill-motive or uncertain credibility, all of whom know what criteria makes a good judge.
“You can see all the criteria for selecting judges on our [Judicial Selection Commission] website,” says Mr. Bello. “We look for people with strong legal background, strong law ethics, and the personality and temperance to handle the work that is required of each Connecticut judge.”
These qualities are listed again in Article IV of the Judicial Selection Commissions Regulations. It states, “The Judicial Selection Commission believes that the fundamental role of judges in our system of law calls for judges to be individuals of the highest personal integrity, professional experience, uncommon qualities of temperament, intelligence, and character.” Mr. Bello seems to have to memorize the laws and regulations of the commission, and during a brief interview his words could have been entered into a word finder and entire phrases would have echoed the regulations established back in 1994.
There is no smoke and mirrors when it comes to the application process on the part of the Judicial Selection Commission. Anyone with computer access can log onto the JSC website and see not only the application, but the guidelines which Commission members use when determining which applicants are best suited for judgeship. It’s not surprising that Mr. Bello would return answers so similar to the guidelines of the JSC Regulations: there is little room for improvisation or subjectivity. The JSC Regulations were established to ensure the best candidates were picked, and nobody, not even the chair of the JSC Commission, should have the ability to deviate from the criteria.
The system of selecting judges through a specialized commission is not utilized in all 50 states. In states like California and New York, citizens elect judges. Although this is a democratic system, it’s difficult to determine if this system, or the selection commission process, works better. The Judicial Selection Commission is comprised of twelve sharp legal and public minds; six acting commission members are practicing attorneys, and the other six members are non-attorneys who have experience in legislation and state procedures. Bill Dyson, although not an attorney, was the former head of the Appropriations Committee in the state of Connecticut, for example, and, at various points has been considered one of the most influential men at the Capitol.
It cannot be determined whether having twelve political and legal minds selecting judges is superior to having a process that’s more in keeping with a traditional political election. Connecticut has abided by the Judicial Selection Commission process since 1994, and since then there has been little controversy or stir in their system. Meanwhile, there has been controversy across the country in several states where party donations have reached the million-dollar mark, and the influence of that money may entice an elected judge to lead with influence from their donating supporters.
Once a candidate has made it past the Judicial Selection Commission, they are placed on a list that goes directly to the Governor. How many potential judges are on this list and how long these people have been waiting is private information. Not even the members of the JSC know the extent of the list. What is known is that attorneys waiting for selection are not chosen chronologically. Once a name reaches the list, it’s the same as all the other’s that may have been waiting for months or even years. It’s up to the Governor and his staff to determine who will make the final cut and enter into judgeship.
“It’s hard to say if this is the best system,” Bill Dyson comments. “People, and by people I mean the average Connecticut citizen, aren’t part of the process. But should they be? Isn’t it better to have people who know the system to be deciding who will be judges instead of people who don’t know anything about it? I don’t know if there’s a definite answer to that question.”
This process, from the attorney’s application, through the Judicial Selection Commission, and finally to the Governor, is not listed in the hallways of courthouses or mentioned in the daily news. It’s a system created by politicians and attorneys to ensure that the judges in the state are the best and brightest; that they are selected not through the votes of the people, but by the minds that superiors at the Capitol trust to make one of the most important decisions: who will impose the law.
Most days the courthouses in Connecticut are filled between nine in the morning to five at night. Some men and women are there for speeding tickets and walk around in casual clothes. Others are transported in vans and buses from neighboring correctional facilities; their tan or gray jumpsuits move slowly as they shuffle between ankle and handcuffs. For many, going to court may end in receiving a fine or probation. For others, the day may end in a sentence that will alter the future of their lives and those around them.
They sit and wait. Prosecutors enter the room in three-piece suits. Public defenders walk, always seemingly with a thick stack of papers. Then they wait some more. Eventually, when the time is ready, and the stenographer is set, the judge enters the room in a black robe, and the loud voice of the Court Marshall booms.