Lawyers feel pressured by personal plea of rookie judge in fundraising letters

Probate Judge Sanctioned
Zuckerman Sought Campaign Money From Lawyers Appearing Before Him
Kim Martineau (
January 12, 2008
The Hartford Courant,0,1602734.story
MADISON — — A local probate judge who solicited campaign cash from lawyers appearing in his courtroom has agreed to disqualify himself from hearing any contested matters those lawyers may have, the state probate administrator announced Friday.
Judge Phillip Zuckerman agreed to the sanction after two lawyers complained to the probate administrator that they felt pressured to give money or risk unfavorable treatment in court. Some of the fundraising letters, sent by Zuckerman’s wife after the 2006 election, contained personal entreaties from the judge.
Probate judges are the only elected judges in Connecticut, and the case in Madison has renewed calls to make the position appointed, to limit the role of politics and the potential for corruption in the courts.”Maybe it’s time to stop electing judges,” said Robert Killian Jr., the probate judge of Hartford. “It’s one more nail in the coffin of a system that hasn’t kept up with modern times.”
State Probate Court Administrator James Lawlor chose to resolve the ethics complaints against Zuckerman himself rather than seek a public reprimand from the Council on Probate Judicial Conduct, a board that operates in near-secrecy and rarely finds anything wrong.
Since the legislature expanded his powers last year, Lawlor has had authority to take cases away from judges, a bargaining chip he used to reach a swift settlement with Zuckerman this week.
The judge has since returned the contributions he received — an amount he estimated at less than $500 — and offered a public apology. “As a novice in running for office I realize that I was not as conversant as I should have been with all the different aspects and nuances of fundraising and the ethical implications,” he wrote.
A Democrat who practices law in New London, Zuckerman spent $18,000 to unseat the longtime probate judge, Republican Carol Lougee, who does not hold a law degree. He won by less than 250 votes.
Under the ethics settlement, Zuckerman will disqualify himself from any contested cases in which he signed a personal note asking for cash. More than 100 lawyers across the state received the fundraising letter but not all of them got personal requests from the judge. In the past week Zuckerman has disqualified himself on eight matters, to be heard by the judge in Chester, at a cost of $250 a day.
The probate courts are largely autonomous, paying the judge’s salary and other expenses from the fees charged for such matters as handling estates and adoptions. Lawlor says he intends to bill Zuckerman for the cost of the replacement judge, which will eventually come out of his salary. The part-time job, in 2005, paid $70,000. The fees generated by the disqualified cases, though, will still go to Zuckerman’s court, possibly canceling out any financial penalty.
At least one study of the probate courts has suggested improving public confidence by limiting the role of money in judicial campaigns. In 2003, a task force of lawyers and probate judges recommended limiting lawyer contributions to $100 and law firm contributions to $1,000.
“It doesn’t help a judge at all to have people wondering if campaign fundraising has any influence on the judge’s handling of his or her case,” said Hartford lawyer Tim Fisher, co-chair of the task force.
Fundraising is a problem even when done by the book, said Killian, who last faced an opponent 19 years ago. He expressed sympathy for Zuckerman, who until recently was a little-known lawyer in Madison.
“I’m blessed — I’m a Democrat in Hartford,” he said. “If I have the endorsement of the party I don’t have the likelihood of an upset by a Republican candidate.”