Judge operates legal practice out of local probate court

Private Shingle on a Public Court
Kim Martineau (kmartineau@courant.com)
February 28, 2008
The Hartford Courant
On paper, it looked like Richard Guliani was running a legitimate law practice from his home. But when clients called the number on his letterhead, the phone rang at town hall, inside the probate court where he was also judge.

By hanging his shingle outside the Probate Court in Portland , Guliani cut overhead costs like lights and phones, letting taxpayers foot the bill. The court also served as an intake point for his law firm.

Anyone stumbling into town hall with an inheritance question was a potential client.

The judge stepped down last year, after 16 years in office, but only now are his conflicting roles coming to light. The Statewide Grievance Committee suspended Guliani’s law license last year for representing clients who appeared in his courtroom. This week, the Council on Probate Judicial Conduct voted to censure him, the harshest punishment possible short of impeachment.

His law career tarnished, Guliani, 55, has taken refuge on the stage. While the probate council listened to testimony about his misconduct this week, the former judge was in New York City, acting. He has sung and acted in many community theater productions, even directing the jury-room drama, ’12 Angry Men.’

Despite dozens of formal complaints, Guliani managed to win four elections and run circles around three probate administrators who tried to make him follow the rules. He also weathered two reprimands from the probate council, which disciplines judges. The two entities charged with making sure judges perform their jobs fairly and competently – the probate administrator and the probate council – failed to catch up with Guliani while it still mattered.

Ultimately, it’s the electorate that holds probate judges in Connecticut accountable. But many of the people aggrieved by Guliani’s conduct did not live in town and had no right to vote.

‘He was just so ornery and nasty and negative,’ said Catherine Tierney, a physical therapist in Kingston, R.I., who handled her mother’s estate in Portland. ‘You couldn’t get any answers. You couldn’t get anything done. It was a very tough time, and he made it a lot tougher.’

Several messages left for Guliani seeking comment for this story were unanswered.

‘He’s no longer at this number’ The court that the new judge, Stephen Kinsella, inherited looks different today. House plants brighten the room and oil portraits of past judges, hauled out of storage, hang on the walls. When Kinsella took office, he found that problems were more widespread and troubling than anyone thought.

Kinsella says he found 320 unfinished cases in the piles of paper Guliani left behind.The court files held another surprise: Tucked inside were Guliani’s legal records.

On Guliani’s private letterhead, Kinsella noticed, the judge had listed a home address, as well as a town e-mail account and the probate court’s phone and fax numbers. It became clear he was representing clients appearing in his courtroom.

In one case, ‘attorney’ Guliani drew up a will for Terry Supple, a state public works manager.

When Supple killed herself during the corruption investigation of former Gov. John G. Rowand, ‘Judge’ Guliani admitted her will to court and apparently approved a $650 legal fee for himself.

Kinsella forwarded the Supple file and two others to the probate administrator, who filed a complaint with the probate council. At a hearing last summer, Kinsella warned the council there was more.

‘I didn’t bring everything to your attention,’ he testified. ‘But if someone wanted to spend a week in my court and look through these records, it’s all over the place. It’s blatant. It’s everywhere where he was wearing both hats.’

As the council debated whether it had jurisdiction over a judge no longer in office, the grievance committee, in November, suspended Guliani’s law license for six months.

Today, Guliani’s clients still wander into court looking for their legal files. Title-search requests arrive regularly by fax. On a recent afternoon, the clerk could be heard in the next room apologizing: ‘He’s no longer at this number.’

‘A walking and living probate scandal’ In Connecticut, where probate judges are allowed to hold outside jobs, there is a long, if informal, tradition of judges mingling their public and private roles, especially if they are lawyers in private practice. Guliani drew a strict ethical line when he took office, in 1991, after walking into court and finding the town attorney – who was also his former law partner – on his phone.

In a letter, Guliani asked Joseph Lynch, a past probate judge, to stay out of his court, worried about the perception of favoritism. After bemoaning the loss of collegiality, Lynch agreed to move his ‘message’ box to the first selectman’s office.

Despite the high moral note he struck at the start, Guliani allowed his ethical standards to slip over time. A picture of his decline is contained in several accordion files of complaints at the probate court.