Rick Green / May 22, 2009
Gov. M. Jodi Rell is on the verge of seismically changing a probate court system that some of the state's most powerful politicians and smart lawyers have been unable --- or unwilling --- to alter for decades.
This year, with probate supporters and political allies once again digging in, Rell changed the game by placing the matter squarely in the face of legislators, calling it "an outdated and sometimes irresponsible probate system."
While it's true that the courts are near insolvency and outrage over abuse cases has been growing, probate has long been a slippery fish, the only court system that has resisted modernizing.
When reform momentum appeared to falter, Rell assembled a bipartisan group led by state Rep. Bob Godfrey that crafted a compromise that appears headed to her desk for signature into law. It will put at least 67 judges out of work.
With Connecticut on the edge of dramatic change, Rell deserves credit for embracing an issue politicians have avoided like vampires fleeing the sunshine.
State House members have overwhelmingly approved the reforms. As soon as the state Senate votes, Rell told me, she will sign the legislation, which slashes the number of courts by more than half and requires judges to be lawyers. The changes require full-time courts, improved training and better oversight of spending. The idea is that this will force creation of a more professional, uniform system.
"Some of the courts have been less than professional. I don't want to call it a good old boy network because there are a lot of women [judges] too," Rell told me this week. "In Connecticut we are very resistant to change."
She's right about that. Where else would you hear judges who preside over complex cases involving involuntary commitment to mental hospitals and nursing homes --- or multimillion-dollar disputes over inheritance --- say that it's not really necessary to be a lawyer to rule on these difficult legal questions?
More than a half-dozen commissions and committees have proposed reforming the probate behemoth since the 1940s, when a commission found there was "no excuse" for 117 courts.
Rell understands that the job of the courts has changed since probate meant a sleepy office in town hall that processed wills.
"We are not dealing anymore with just people's estates when they die. Now you are talking adoptions and committing people and families not having enough say," Rell said. "You need someone with a legal mind and a legal background."
As we spoke, I recalled an unforgettable scene from a Waterbury courtroom almost three years ago, where I watched a hunched-over old man appeal to Superior Court Judge Joseph Gormley, desperate for relief from the shackles of probate court.
"A terrible miscarriage of justice has happened here," an angry Gormley said, excoriating 86-year-old Daniel Gross' treatment in probate court. He then ordered the old man freed from an involuntary conservatorship and imprisonment in a nursing home.
This outrage and a string of others I wrote about over the last few years helped to convince me --- and eventually Rell --- that it was time to let go of the past, even if it meant alienating some small towns that love their local courts.
Taxpayers will pay more than $12 million to make the new courts solvent, and possibly more in coming years. The state will also pick up the tab, at least for a few years, for health benefits for retired judges.
But if the lasting impact is a court system where rights are respected, where judges are properly trained and lawyers represent the interests of their clients, it's worth it.
Thanks to Rell, probate might finally change. The state Senate should act immediately.[