Attorney sues state Judicial Branch over pandemic restrictions on courts

Attorney sues state Judicial Branch over pandemic restrictions on courts

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MERIDEN — The attorney representing former city councilor Miguel Castro has filed a federal lawsuit against the state Judicial Branch claiming its current pandemic restrictions on legal proceedings violate criminal defendants’ constitutional right to due process.

Bridgeport-based attorney Robert Berke claims chief court administrator Patrick Carroll III, the branch’s top decision maker, “hasn’t fulfilled his statutory charge of ensuring the prompt disposition of cases and the proper administration of judicial business” since the pandemic hit in March. Berke filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court on behalf of Shelton-based defense attorney James Ruane and three men with pending criminal cases, including Castro, who was arrested last month on domestic violence charges.

The lawsuit is seeking a judgment that the branch’s policies violate the plaintiffs’ due process rights and that a panel be appointed to recommend policy modifications that allow video conferencing for criminal matters. 

“We’re seeking the court to open up virtually by video, similar to what the federal courts are doing,” Berke said in an interview this week. 

A Judicial Branch spokesperson declined to comment on the lawsuit because it is pending. 

‘It’s crippling’

Gov. Ned Lamont issued an executive order in March suspending all court business not considered urgent, or “Priority 1 business,” which are matters like criminal arraignments and emergency motions. Since then, the Judicial Branch has taken an incremental approach to resume operations and expand matters considered “Priority 1.” The vast majority of criminal cases, however, remain stalled and Meriden’s courthouse, among others, remains closed as matters that would normally be handled in Meriden continue to be moved to New Haven Superior Court. There is no update on when the Meriden courthouse will reopen, a Judicial Branch spokesperson said by email this week.

“As far as defending your case, it's crippling,” Berke said about the current restrictions. On a normal day at large courthouses such as New Haven and Bridgeport, the criminal docket can include hundreds of cases, Berke said. Lately, there has been a tiny fraction of criminal cases, some days no cases at all, being docketed.

“The fundamental bedrock of our society is our criminal justice system and it seemed that our Judicial department simply did not move with the speed necessary,” Shelton defense attorney Jay Ruane said this week. Ruane is the son of attorney James Ruane, one of four plaintiffs listed in the lawsuit. He said the current court restrictions have forced his clients to be in custody longer than they’d normally be as they wait to for their cases to resume.

The complaint filed by Berke says current restrictions made it more difficult for Castro to schedule a date for a hearing in which he would be allowed to contest a protective order issued by a judge. The evidentiary hearing, called a Fernando A. hearing, will allow Castro to confront his accuser, his 18-year-old daughter, and call witnesses. The hearing is named after a case in which the state Supreme Court ruled defendants are entitled to a hearing shortly after their arraignment to contest a protective order.

Berke told the judge during the arraignment that Castro wished to hold the hearing as soon as possible because the protective order is preventing Castro from living in the home he shared with his 18-year-old daughter prior to the arrest. Castro hasn’t yet entered a plea and his next court date is scheduled for July 2, according to online court records. He has denied committing any crime the night of the incident.

“The acts complained of, especially the policies set in place by Judge Carroll, deprived Plaintiff, Miguel Castro of his 14th Amendment right to due process, and his 6th Amendment right to confront his accusers,” the complaint reads.

Disparities between criminal, civil cases

The lawsuit argues Connecticut’s court system has lagged behind the federal system and other state systems in using video conferencing to conduct criminal matters. It also claims the Judicial Branch has given deference to civil proceedings by allowing remote pre-trials and status conferences to be held for civil cases first. Remote pretrials, status conferences, and trial management conferences began for civil cases on May 18, three weeks before remote pretrials began for criminal cases.

“The differentiation of judicial branch policies toward criminal and civil matters has no rational basis,” the complaint reads. It goes on to assert the Judicial Branch “has a demonstrated history of addressing civil matters over criminal matters as evidenced by its e-filing process.”

The state’s e-filing system for years has allowed motions and documents to be filed in civil but not criminal matters, the lawsuit notes. Members of the public are able to view these filings in civil cases for free, but the only information provided for criminal cases is the defendant’s name, docket number, charges, and next court appearance available online for criminal cases.

Though the Judicial Branch declined to address the lawsuit this week, Carroll responded to the criticisms that criminal cases are being left behind in a written statement to the Record-Journal last month.

“The overwhelming majority of business being handled by the Judicial Branch during the COVID crisis has been criminal business,” Carroll wrote in written responses provided through a spokesperson. “… The criminal system has not been ‘left behind,’ it has clearly been at the forefront of all that we have done and are continuing to do in the court system.”

John Thomas, a Quinnipiac University School of Law professor, said he thinks the lawsuit “may be successful” depending on the Judicial Branch’s explanation for the differences in how civil and criminal cases are being handled. He’s unaware of any other states treating civil cases more liberally than criminal cases.

“I can think of rational explanations for why civil cases are proceeding and criminal cases are not,” Thomas said. “I can’t think of a rational explanation for allowing electronic filing of documents in the civil context and not in the criminal context. There I think the plaintiffs’ argument is a winner.

“That’s been ongoing for some time,” he added about the state allowing electronic filing for civil but not criminal cases. “It couldn’t be because key personnel are suddenly missing … So I do think it’s concerning that there are these different treatments of civil versus criminal cases, and of course, in the criminal context, we have the constitutional right to a speedy trial.”

Jay Ruane said the lawsuit raise questions about disparate treatment of lower income populations.

“It’s the wealthier people who pay filing fees to file a civil case whereas the criminal justice system includes defendants who are predominantly low income,” he said in an interview last month.

Mounting frustration

The rare step taken by Berke, a solo practitioner, to sue the court system he practices in is an indication of the widespread frustration among attorneys and litigants over the challenges posed by more than three months of court closures.

“I know from speaking to a lot of attorneys that there is a frustration, and rightly so,” said Frank J. Riccio, president-elect of the Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.

“There’s a frustration that their livelihoods have been taken from them because of the pandemic, they’re looking for work and life to return to normal,” Riccio said. “So there is complete frustration, and so that lawsuit is a reflection of that frustration.”

The lawsuit only seeks to open up courts and doesn’t seek any monetary damages, which Thomas said helps public perception.

“They’re simply saying, ‘We want our day in court,’ as opposed to, ‘We want to get money because we have to wait in jail longer.’ So I think the public is more likely to react positively,” Thomas said.

Jay Ruane hopes the lawsuit will put “pressure” on Carroll to act swiftly. In an interview last month, he said he had 47 cases pending at the Meriden courthouse and sharply criticized Carroll’s handling of the pandemic.

“I fear that without pressure to act, we will see no progress, and if another spike happens we will further push back access to the courts for all,” Ruane said by email this week. “Court access is not a luxury item in a civilized society. Court access is a basic necessity.”

Jay Ruane’s father, James, is representing Juan Vasquez, one of the three criminal defendants listed. The lawsuit states that James Ruane is over the age of 65 and has heart disease, making him more vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus. The lawsuit is challenging a requirement that private attorneys appear in person at court hearings, arguing that not accommodating Ruane’s condition by allowing him to work remotely violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, which includes cardiovascular disease as a disability.

Riccio sits on the Connecticut Bar Association’s COVID-19 task force, which meets and works with Carroll to present the concerns of attorneys. He said Berke’s lawsuit “brings up a lot of relevant points,” but added Carroll “has been working around the clock to solve a lot of these problems.” While some attorneys have criticized Carroll’s pandemic response, Riccio defended Carroll’s response based on his dealings with him.

“His number one concern is safety,” Riccio said. “… It appears to me that he is working very hard to try to get business back to normal. It feels like it’s taking a long time, and it is. But at the same time, really all walks of life are working slowly and steadily to try to reopen.”

mzabierek@record-journal.com203-317-2279Twitter: @MatthewZabierek

Read the lawsuit.
"The fundamental bedrock of our society is our criminal justice system and it seemed that our Judicial department simply did not move with the speed necessary."

-Defense attorney Jay Ruane
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