The state’s new chief justice, Richard Robinson, says he’d like to improve the image of the state Supreme Court -- but at the same time he’s concerned about the effects of deep budget cuts on the whole judicial branch.
Speaking on Connecticut Public Radio’s The Colin McEnroe Show, Robinson said there’s been a lot of turnover on the court in recent years, but he’s trying to emphasize the more collegial side of the institution.
“You have people who very, very passionately take positions," he told McEnroe. "Even though the court isn’t as hot as it used to be -- that’s still happening, and people are passionately taking positions. And we’ve all sat down and said look -- we have to be very careful how our public appearance is. We need people to understand that we can agree to disagree.”
But Robinson, who oversees the whole judicial branch of government in Connecticut said the efficiency and effectiveness of justice is being undercut by funding issues.
“We fully understand that the state has a fiscal crisis, but we also understand that the judicial branch has to function properly," he said. "We’re operating with about $61 million less in our budget than we had before, and about 430 fewer employees. And of course that directly impacts on how we operate.”
Robinson said he's deeply concerned about this upcoming budget round, not least because one of his top priorities for the judicial branch is to provide better access to justice for the disadvantaged in Connecticut.
He said having to make difficult decisions like closing courthouses, though in the short term saves money, can have unintended consequences, particularly for working people who have to travel further to appear in court, and must take time from their jobs.
"Let’s say you’re a defendant and you’re charged with a misdemeanor. And you have to come back a few times and then you miss a court date. If that person eventually ends up with a failure to appear -- then they now they have a very serious crime. And we have to avoid situations like that," said Robinson.
He said in a quest to be more efficient and responsive, the judicial branch is beginning to leverage technology to allow people to do things like appeal traffic tickets online. “We realize we have to get better with technology, because we’re going to have less people,” he said.
Robinson is the state's first African American chief justice. He said he thought he had understood the significance of that, but it really only sank in very recently, as he met with a tour group of middle school students at the court, many of whom were African American.
“I walk into the room, and you would have thought President Obama walked into the room -- they were excited to the point their mouths were agape,” he said. “The excitement was just incredible.”