Thursday, March 13, 2014

Financial Incentives Have Undermined Ethics and Justice

The following piece was written and submitted more than one year ago by a parent in response to an article written by Connecticut Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers, appearing as an Op-Ed in The Hartford Courant newspaper, March 7, 2014, titled "Reducing Contentious Family Court Cases Vital." Although the reply below was sent to both The Hartford Courant and The Connecticut Law Tribune, neither published the piece (received by us on March 13, 2014). The father had also sent a copy directly to Chief Justice Rogers, but no response was ever received. We post the reply here exactly as received, with permission of the author:

"I read with interest, sadness, and disbelief the recent Op-Ed penned by our Connecticut Supreme Court Chief Justice, the Honorable Chase T. Rogers.  While her article of March 7, 2014, opens by acknowledging the undeniable pain and difficulty of court cases involving divorce and child custody, it fails to address in any manner whatsoever the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ – the financial incentives at all levels which have undermined the system for decades, enriching many of those working within, at the direct expense of the very children the court claims they are so focused on protecting.

Rogers disagrees that the system is totally broken.  I agree with her on that point.  The Connecticut Family Court appears to operate precisely the way it has been designed, structured, and refined through rule changes to work with the built-in financial incentives leading to somewhat obvious results.  Far too many families are being fleeced of their assets by attorneys who have honed the art of gaming both their clients and the system.  In many cases, the record reflects that children are being used as pawns to prolong the conflict and increase the number of hours that can be billed by a veritable army of cappos, many of whom are members of the Connecticut Bar and hide behind doctrines of immunity or otherwise rest easy knowing the groups tasked with review of attorney or judicial grievance filings are staffed with insiders who have a proven track record of protecting their own. 

To be fair, the problem does not rest with all attorneys and all judges and all court-appointed professionals, but the body of evidence is overwhelming to support the assertion that it is certainly more than just a few rogue individuals.  The fact that some family court problems are finally being addressed at all is NOT because the court decided to act on its own accord, but because individual parents, desperately seeking answers to their own problems, managed to assemble and protest – a process that is fundamental to the founding of our country.  

While one of the most notable problems garnering media attention in the last year is that of the Guardians Ad Litem (GAL) and their questionable involvement in many family cases, this is not the only legitimate issue that has been raised.  Far too many litigants have given public testimony citing a range of clear civil rights violations, questionable use of incarceration by family court judges, denied access to their children, blatant perjury and/or fraud ignored by the court, favoritism toward counsel vs. self-represented litigants, and a host of burdensome financial orders lacking factual or legal basis that have wrongfully stripped many litigants of retirement savings, children’s college funds, and homes – to say nothing of their dignity, credit ratings, and reputations within their respective professions and communities.

In this writer’s assessment, our Chief Justice would do well to remove her robe, as well as her legal hat for a moment, and objectively consider what has driven so many parents to speak out as they have.  More importantly, she should consider the far greater numbers who are afraid to speak out because they have seen and heard of the retaliation that often follows.  If she isn’t willing to acknowledge the facts, and isn’t willing to consider the messages raised by parents, then perhaps she’ll at least consider the points raised by those few members of the Connecticut Bar who have been brave enough to risk their own careers by speaking out against the dishonesty that they see occurring in court – actions that are required under the Attorney’s Oath.

Several months ago, I contacted the Judicial Branch seeking raw data to conduct a statistical analysis into cases that go to appeal or certification.  The very capable individuals who handled my request could not have been more professional or courteous in their response, but to my surprise, the data I was requesting had never been requested before – by anyone – ever.  Since I’m first at bat, it appears I’ll have the privilege of funding the project (nearly $900). 

One would think the Judiciary Committee or our Chief Justice or Chief Court Administrator would want and need to know things like:
·         What percentage of appeals stem from family matters?
·         What is the average duration of an appeal?
·         What trends do the data suggest over the last decade or two?
·         Which family court judges have the most appeals filed?
·         Which family court judges have the most reversals?
·         Are there statistical patterns that might serve as early detection?
·         What percent of appeals involve self-represented litigants?
·         and so many other questions . . .

As the Judicial Branch presses the legislature to approve funding for yet more insiders to support their pilot program, I’d suggest the legislature respond by requiring the Branch to be more transparent and accountable for the results of the money already being spent. 

On February 26, 2014, prior to a vote on the re-appointment of family court judge Leslie Olear, remarks about the family court system by State Senator Kevin Witkos accurately described the heart of the issue, “We can’t always blame the system saying, ‘Well, they’re working within the system so there’s nothing we can do about it.’  That’s not true . . . yes, we do have a systemic problem and we’ll deal with that, but we also have to deal with the person that has the ability to take action that’s not taking action, and while we say there’s going to be a hearing in the judiciary committee sometime this legislative session, these people are going back to court every single day, and their bills are getting larger, and larger, and larger, and there’s one person in the courtroom that can stop that from happening, and that’s the judge, but in my opinion, they’re allowing it to continue.”  In a earlier vote on the House floor, State Representative Edwin Vargas drew correlations between North Korea and Connecticut Family Court, suggesting practices whereby the divorce “industry” should be under a Federal Investigation under the RICO Act.
The mission of the Connecticut Judicial Branch, as reported on its’ web site is, “to serve the interests of justice and the public by resolving matters brought before it in a fair, timely, efficient and open manner.”  Further, “The judiciary is the cornerstone of our democracy and, if the public is confident that our judges, compensation commissioners, and family support magistrates have integrity, are impartial, are independent, and act with propriety, the public will support the judiciary as it functions within our legal system.” (Purpose of the Judicial Review Council, established 1976). 

The significant increase in public testimony, appeals, and attorney and judicial grievances should serve as ample evidence that the public has lost confidence in the mission and performance of the judiciary.  To regain that confidence, the public needs to see real evidence and action that the system is willing to police itself and make meaningful, swift changes that are truly in the best interests of our children."

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