Too many probate judges or too few ethics?

Too Many Probate Judges
March 2, 2008
The Hartford Courant,0,2153907.story
A recent story in The Courant about small-town probate courts with little reason to exist conjured up the image of a judge drumming his fingers on his desk, blank legal pad at the ready, looking out the window in vain for a customer; his clerk/wife sitting in her state-mandated separate office next door with as little to do as the judge. The most common communication between them is, “Ready for lunch?”

Stuart Case, in Hampton, could be typical of such judges. Hampton, population 1,900, doesn’t have a gas station. Its residents must drive miles to a hospital. But it has a probate court. It is the second least-used court in the state.

Judge Case’s tiny suite of two offices in town hall is open six hours a week — despite a state law passed last year that requires all 117 probate courts in Connecticut to be open at least 20 hours a week.

He’s defying the law, arguing that he doesn’t have enough business to stay open the required number of hours. He had about as much work last year as the Hartford court might take up in a day. He’s not alone.

It’s a strange state of affairs when a judge openly disobeys the law and the probate courts administrator, James Lawlor, does nothing about it.

Close The Smallest Courts
Although they will be missed, probate courts like the one in Hampton should be closed. Shuttering them will be difficult. Local probate courts have loyal backers who appreciate the personal touch provided by judges they know on the most intimate and sensitive issues: child custody cases, estates, commitment of the mentally ill. That’s why state lawmakers have been loath to consolidate the courts.

But the small, underused courts are a drag. Probate courts subsist mainly on user fees, and the small ones don’t generate enough. The system is supposed to go broke next year. The state’s choice will be to subsidize the probate courts or reduce their number. By one estimate, closing the smallest 60 courts would save about $3.7 million a year with minimum disruption. If that’s done, 84 percent of residents would still use the same court.

Here’s a comparison that argues persuasively for consolidation: The busiest probate court in the state, Hartford, does roughly the same amount of work as the smallest 40 courts combined.

It just makes sense for the legislature and governor to confront the probate problem and agree on a consolidation plan that leaves the remaining courts with enough work to do and enough revenue to sustain the system.

Appoint Judges, Don’t Elect Them
Not only should the system be consolidated but, in the spirit of thorough reform, serious consideration should be given to appointing probate judges rather than electing them. A merit appointment system would likely increase the level of professionalism in the system and would help buffer it from politics and corruption. Historically, critics of the probate system point out, probate judges have doled out lucrative work, such as guardianships, to friends who in turn have helped finance their campaigns.

Probate judges are the only elected judges in Connecticut. “Maybe it’s time to stop electing judges,” Hartford Probate Judge Robert Killian Jr. said recently. “It’s one more nail in the coffin of a system that hasn’t kept up with modern times.”

Despite dozens of complaints, Richard Guliani won four elections before stepping down as probate judge in Portland last year. He had used his court as his law firm, listing the public office’s number on his private letterhead. He would work as both judge and attorney on a case, drawing up a will, admitting the will to court and approving his own legal fee. His successor now says, “We deal with the problems he left us all day long.”

Let’s bring the probate system into the 21st century by eliminating courts that do little work and by appointing probate judges rather than electing them. Full-time, appointed, professional probate judges — and fewer of them — are the answer.