Monday, January 26, 2015

It's Time to Dissect the System

Disgruntled attorneys try to shift focus away from corrupt practices

If you work with words long enough, you can tell an awful lot from what is being written. Even more interesting, at times, is what is not being written. Sometimes a part-time writer doesn't even realize that they may be telling more of a story than they had intended. Such is the case in a recent article written by Attorney Allen Gary Palmer for The Connecticut Law Tribune. Palmer serves as the newest head of the Connecticut Bar Association's Family Law Section and attempts to deflect attention from where it is most needed – the members of the bar itself.

Perhaps it’s only fitting that Palmer chose the headline, “It’s Time to Reset the System,” for his article which was published on January 20, 2015, and sought to blame outspoken parents for the turmoil being experienced by family law practitioners. The sub-head noted, “Disgruntled litigants have shifted family law focus away from children.” He even starts the article by stating, “This article should make anyone reading it feel uncomfortable.” Well, his 1,713 word article certainly lived up to its billing, but not for the reason he may have thought.

For a moment, let’s look at the word “system” used in his headline. Popular synonyms include the following words – scheme, organization, arrangement, and others. There is little doubt that some in Connecticut’s divorce industry are operating a scheme. Until somewhat recently, a well-camouflaged organization within our family courts, complete with a host of special arrangements highly customizable to maximize sustained profitability, at the expense of unwitting clients. Palmer and others can talk all they want, write all they want, and posture all they want, but it won’t change the facts. For decades in the once great state of Connecticut (and elsewhere in the United States), a dishonest minority of attorneys, judges, guardians, therapists, and others have been feeding off unsuspecting families at one of the most vulnerable times in their life.

Few, if any, would argue that separation or divorce present difficult decisions, even in the most amicable of circumstances. Add children to the equation and the magnitude of the situation grows exponentially worse. Divorce represents so many things – failure, unfulfilled dreams, life plans gone awry, escape, upheaval, relief, and more. For those emotionally broken women and men, many also mothers and fathers, it is a very vulnerable time. Certainly there are many skilled and compassionate professionals serving individuals and families in need, including minor children. The evidence, however, cannot be ignored that far too many unscrupulous impostors are parading around in plain sight, pretending to serve the interests of clients, but more closely modeling their secret actions after Brutus and Judas, two of the most infamous betrayers in history.

Palmer is just the latest from a group of pathetic, feeble-minded foot soldiers seeking to blame victimized parents who have somehow summoned the strength and courage to come forward and tell their story, in spite of the pain and embarrassment. Palmer and others seem to think that labeling these parents as ‘disgruntled litigants’ will somehow shame them into silence so the ‘system’ can continue churning through the next generation of failed relationships, stripping the parents of home equity and retirement savings, and siphoning off whatever college savings or other assets were earmarked for the children’s future. It’s unlikely that Palmer and his cronies would refer to the relatively small percentage of rape victims who come forward publicly as ‘disgruntled.’ Or those brave parents from Sandy Hook who chose to step forward and advocate for change in the midst of unimaginable pain – would he classify them as ‘disgruntled’ too?

It’s an awfully inflammatory word – disgruntled. Sounds serious, but look it up and you’ll find that it’s simply an adjective that means ‘angry or dissatisfied.’ There is no doubt that many of the parents I have interviewed in Connecticut during the last year are both angry and dissatisfied. I can’t say I blame them. They expected better from their attorneys, better from their counselors, better from court appointed guardians, and better from the judges and the court itself. In fact, a few mothers and fathers even admitted expecting better from their former partner and themselves, but noted the emotional drain and pain of watching their children suffer was too much to bear. Sure, it’s easy for Palmer and others to try and shift the blame and attention to “50 or so of the most vocally dissatisfied customers,” but what is really happening is a group of disgruntled attorneys – yes, disgruntled – as in angry and dissatisfied attorneys, are scrambling like drunks at last call trying to figure out how and where they will possibly make their living if the “system” they designed and refined is finally found out and dismantled, one statute at a time. The deception feeding the bottom line in Connecticut’s thriving divorce industry is so extensive; it would make Bernie Madoff’s infamous Ponzi scheme look like a fifth-grade school project.

Palmer and the family law section can try to blame parents, but consider this – most parents go through the divorce process once. A much smaller number, twice perhaps. The attorneys, guardians, counselors, clerks, and judges on the other hand see dozens of cases each day. These are skilled, highly educated people. It is simply not credible to think that these experienced professionals cannot spot a pattern over time and employ skills, tactics, and strategies to resolve conflict, secure discovery, minimize litigation, and preserve assets. That would certainly be ‘in the best interest of the children,’ but how would that help fund the machine? The system that Palmer said needed to be reset, should instead be dissected to see what is really inside. Greater transparency might also be a great place to start. The Statewide Grievance Committee and Judicial Review Council both operate in relative secrecy, in spite of their claims and meaningless published reports. How many valid complaints have been buried by industry-insiders sitting on these reviewing panels? If they have nothing to hide, then publish all complaints and let the public decide which attorneys and judges are earning more ‘frequent flyer miles’ than others.    

Perhaps one of the biggest problems facing Palmer and others is in the mirror each morning, but they just refuse to acknowledge it. The next time the family law section gathers for a meeting, it should pause for a moment of silence. It should encourage all members to reflect on the three hard-earned letters that appear after their name. Letters that once stood for something noble. Then, a brief moment to think about past clients and how, perhaps, they could have served those clients better, even if it meant making a little less money. Lastly, each member should think about themselves, because if they don’t wake up fast, they will realize those three letters describe their dwindling base of prospective clients – an ever smaller quantity, or esq.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Judge Thomas Parker and Allegations of Racial Discrimination

A disturbing chain of events was exposed today at a public hearing before the Judiciary Committee. It's not the first time that members of the public have come forward to testify in opposition to the renomination of a sitting judge, but it's one of the few times it seems to have actually mattered.

The judge in this case was Thomas F. Parker, a seasoned Judge of the Connecticut Superior Court seeking reappointment for another eight-year term on the bench. The hearing itself was not unlike many others, with a full agenda of many new nominees before Judiciary Committee members, as well as an even larger number of judges seeking renomination. As a side note, it is rather interesting to hear the words used by Committee members who often say "reappointment" rather than "renomination," as if to suggest that it's already a done deal and a mere formality that they need to appear before the Committee. Members can often be heard making brief comments from the dais, congratulating the judge for their reappointment, yet failing to ask any questions about the previous eight-year term, which is the very point of the hearing. It is not until the vetting process is complete and a vote is cast that an individual is passed with a favorable (or unfavorable) recommendation from Committee to the House and Senate for a full vote on a specific Resolution regarding re-nomination by the Governor which, if passed, becomes the confirmation of that re-nomination. There is never an actual appointment or re-appointment.

Let me get back on track. In the case of Judge Parker, there had been serious allegations filed by a litigant from the New London Superior Court. Once the video of the hearing becomes available, we'll link to it here so you can watch and listen for yourself. The details were and are disturbing, including allegations of racial bias, discrimination, intimidation and retaliation - even including allegations that the judge had leaned into the witness box from his place on the bench and grabbed the African-American litigant by the wrist. Surely had the reverse happened, the Judicial Marshals would have rushed the bench and it would have made the evening news. In this case, Judge Parker gave wholesale denials of the allegations. When questioned by the few members of the Judiciary Committee courageous enough to seek the truth, the answers were either denials or evasive. You can review the official transcript of the public hearing to decide for yourself.

Later, when members of the public finally had their turn to give oral testimony, the litigant who had been patiently waiting in the first few rows the entire time, stepped forward when called. Mr. Sylvester Traylor gave clear, specific and deliberate testimony, recounting details of his interactions with Judge Parker that bore little resemblance to the judicial demeanor suggested by Parker during his testimony.

Mr. Traylor supplemented his oral testimony with written testimony which left little doubt that legislators were going to have a difficult time ignoring the serious nature of the allegations before them. Even though a complaint to the Judicial Review Council had been dismissed, there was clear and convincing evidence before the Committee that the conduct alleged, if true, was a serious breach of judicial conduct and could not be accepted, not in 2015 and not given the diverse population that regularly enters Connecticut courts each and every day.

UPDATE: We'll revisit this with more thorough detail, but it appears that the Judiciary Committee were saved from the unpleasant task of having to vote against Judge Parker. After prolonged silence on the issue, Co-Chairman Eric Coleman announced that the matter would not advance to a vote as the Governor had rescinded the re-nomination of Judge Parker.