Judiciary Committee

JOINT FAVORABLE REPORT

Bill No.:

HB-6385

Title:

AN ACT CONCERNING REFORM OF THE PROBATE COURT SYSTEM.

Vote Date:

4/1/2009

Vote Action:

Joint Favorable

PH Date:

3/9/2009

File No.:

729

SPONSORS OF BILL:

Judiciary Committee, Governor M. Jodi Rell

REASONS FOR BILL:

The state's probate court system is funded by revenue collected in cases and also through a state appropriation of $2.5 million. The system, by way of its administration fund, is facing a potential $5 million shortfall in FY 2011 and is projecting deficiencies in all future years. Consolidation of the large number of districts is needed in order to achieve cost savings.

RESPONSE FROM ADMINISTRATION/AGENCY:

Governor M. Jodi Rell Supports this bill. My proposal will eliminate the shortfall and ensure the courts remain more locally based. This proposal eliminates the need for any additional state funds and the current appropriation of $2.5 million.

Secretary Robert L. Genuario, Office of Policy and Management Supports this bill. Consolidation of the tremendous amount of courts (117) is needed for any significant cost savings. This will eliminate 81 judges and a modest 20% reduction in non-judicial staff expenses will result in significant savings. Compensate all judges on a weighted work load basis. Requires that all staff, including judges, work a minimum of 20 hours per week to qualify for health benefits and any pension plan. Requires that all courts be open not less than 40 hours per week. Require that all judges be attorneys for not less than 10 years. Eliminate the statute that provides any additional retirement credit for any judge that is displaced. Centralize certain of the accounting and payroll functions of each court in the Office of the Probate Court Administrator. Allocate each court's budget for staff and miscellaneous expenses by the Office of the Probate Court Administrator. The Probate Court Administrator would be responsible for balancing the budget for the probate court system.

Judge Barbara M. Quinn, Chief Court Administrator, Connecticut Judicial Branch Supports this bill. We have witnessed the steady depletion of the Probate Court Administration Fund over the past several years. This depletion is the result of two things: (1) increasing expenses for the system that are outpacing revenue, and (2) the removal of $15 million from the fund during the budget crisis 5 years ago. Last fall it was projected that the Probate Court system would be bankrupt in 2010; recent projections show a deficit even sooner than that. This bill proposes a solution to the crisis, and would entail very significant changes to the way the system operates.

Judge Paul J. Knierim, Probate Court Administrator, Office of the Probate Court Administrator Under this bill, the accounting functions of each probate court would be centralized under Probate Court Administration to ensure uniformity and improve efficiency. This bill would replace the existing compensation system for probate judges, which is based principally on court revenue, with a plan based upon population and court workload.

We seek to promote voluntary court consolidations. The General Assembly can establish regional probate planning committees charged with helping communities develop plans to establish regional probate courts that fit their particular needs. HG-6385 would replace the existing 117 courts with 36 districts that would share boundaries with the senate districts. We are concerned that a consolidation of this magnitude will be counterproductive from a facilities standpoint. Because these larger courts cannot in many cases be accommodated in city and town halls, municipalities will be faced with the added expense of leasing commercial space.

This bill proposes adoption of a requirement that candidates for the office of probate judge be attorneys with ten years of experience. This bill does not provide for currently sitting judges to be “grandfathered”.

Existing law grants a 4 year pension credit to a probate judge whose district is merged. We recommend including court staff in this program and increasing the credit amount to 6 years. The enhanced 6 year credit would sunset at the end of the current term.

This bill assumes that court consolidation will yield a 20% reduction in court staff. We do not consider such a contraction to be realistic considering that the workload of the courts will remain the same, regardless of the number of facilities.

It is our view that self-sufficiency is neither practically achievable nor philosophically appropriate. An investment of general fund support is essential to bridge the period from now until implementation can be completed, since none of the savings from restructuring under either plan can be realized until January 2011.

We urge the General Assembly to restore support for the system's indigent expenses – much of which results directly from our social service cases. We also respectfully request the general fund assume responsibility for the payment of health insurance for retired judges and employees, in the same way that it covers that expense for every other state agency.

NATURE AND SOURCES OF SUPPORT:

Attorney Marilyn Denny It is long overdue. At a time when we are reducing supports for some of the frailest of our citizens, administrative revisions that are cost-saving are critical. What the governor proposes would make such savings and would not impair the protections afforded to those who need the assistance of our court system.

Thomas Behrendt, Connecticut Legal Rights Project, Inc. Going to a system with 36 courts, corresponding to each of the state's senate districts makes sense. The probate system should be part of Connecticut's unified court system, and should be integrated as a division of the Superior Courts. This would also rectify the probate courts' utter lack of security – a disaster waiting to happen in the courts that now preside over the most sensitive and hotly contested matters of termination of parental rights, custody, contested wills, conservatorship and guardianships.

Sally R. Zanger, Staff Attorney, Connecticut Legal Rights Project, Inc. This is the Governor's Probate Reform Bill and contains many measures which will improve the operation of the probate courts.

Attorney Veronica Halpine, Greater Hartford Legal Aid It is a thoughtful and courageous plan.

Connecticut Conference of Municipalities Municipalities are concerned about the probate system because of the important services it provides to the community. There is a strong identification and tie between probate courts and the municipalities they serve. CCM urges the Committee to draft a reform proposal in a way that does not rely on local governments to shoulder an unfair financial burden for a state judicial function.

Fred J. Anthony, President – Judge, Connecticut Probate Assembly Due to the personal nature of the matters which come before the probate courts, the public is better served by having such matters handled in venues in which responsive appropriate services can be rendered, without burdening the Superior Court facilities and staff. The accounting functions currently performed in each of the individual courts would be centralized under the Probate Court Administrator's office and improve efficiency and provide better accountability. This bill will pay judges based upon population and workload, eliminating a statutory formula based principally on court revenue.

However, we continue to promote voluntary court consolidations and to ensure that local communities are involved in the decision making process. We propose that the General Assembly establish regional probate planning committees which would include all judges and municipal CEOs in the region, along with representation from court clerks, attorney, and members of the public. The Governor's proposal faces certain difficulties because several large municipalities would have two courts and cause confusion as to the proper venue for matters.

NATURE AND SOURCES OF OPPOSITION:

Joseph P. Secola, Judge of Probate, District of Brookfield and President of Connecticut Probate Judges Association for Local Courts, Inc. “I support some and oppose much the Governor's probate bill, which I will elaborate on in live testimony.”

Dianne E. Yamin, Probate Judge, District of Danbury Although it certainly makes sense to consolidate the courts into pre-existing regional districts, I do not believe that the senatorial districts will well serve the people who utilize the Probate Court system. The senatorial districts often break up towns into several regions, such as in Stamford, which would result in some towns having several probate districts within the one town, clearly an unworkable result. I believe this would be confusing to residents and difficult for the Courts to monitor, and extremely inefficient.

My second concern about senatorial districts for probate court regions is the logistics of statutorily and practically sufficient space for the courts. Most of the currently existing Probate Courts are located in small spaces in city halls. Even the largest Probate Courts will likely need major renovations or entirely new facilities I order to accommodate much larger staffs and work loads, and require building new structures, which also could be prohibitively costly. That is the beauty of the planning committees set forth in HB 6027 in that these logistics can be addressed at a local level, where the most informed decisions can be made.

Bart Russell, Connecticut Council Of Small Towns This bill penalizes our small town families by dramatically reducing the salaries of our probate judges and requiring probate courts to be open 40 hours a week, regardless of the needs of the community. COST is concerned that these proposals jeopardize the well-being of local people who are already in a fragile condition (usually elderly) who need personal, supportive service for the issues they normally go to the probate courts for, such as estate affairs after a loved one dies. Probate court consolidation would force small towns to pay into a bureaucracy in which they had no say as to how it was operated and whether it was efficient in meeting the needs of the local, smaller communities. COST strongly supports initiatives to encourage voluntary regional cooperation to provide programs to meet the needs of local residents in a more efficient, cost-effective manner.

Deborah M. Pearl, Probate Judge, District of Essex “Oppose in its entirety”.

Joel E. Helander, Judge of Probate, District of Guilford “reform of the Probate court system is likewise radical and premature with unproven results and costs.” If you canvass attorneys-at-law who bring matters into the Probate Courts, you are likely to hear that these courts, having evolved over a period of 310 years, are user-friendly, extremely accessible, and deliver rapid services. Consolidation would invariably create a new bureaucracy not too unlike the Superior Court system of Connecticut, which is often recognized as case-jammed, slow, and inefficient and not user-friendly. The relatively informal style of the Probate Courts is highly conducive to dispute resolution and mediation. The historical perspective from this indicates that the motive for regionalization has far more to do with centralization of power and control than it does a system that is allegedly broken. By consolidating small, wealthier districts represented by the smaller, wealthier towns, the large city courts can gain financially.

Linda Salafia, Judge of Probate, District of Norwich I do not have a law degree and there is no provision for the grandfathering of lay judges, many of whom have devoted years of competent, dedicated service to residents of their districts. There is no doubt that decisions rendered by lay judges in the past will become suspect, and future decisions will no doubt be overly scrutinized since this bill will have deemed lay judges unable to understand the law.

I firmly believe that establishing probate districts along senatorial district lines is not in the best interest of the residents of the State of Connecticut. For example, the Norwich Probate District includes the towns of Norwich, Preston, Lisbon, Franklin, Voluntown and Sprague. All probate records from those towns, including Griswold which was a part of the Norwich District until 1979, are on file at the Norwich Probate Court. Only Norwich, Franklin, Lisbon and Sprague are included in the 19th Senatorial District. It would be a nearly impossible task to separate the records of each town.

It appears that no consideration was given to an almost certain increase in attorneys' fees in many probate matters due to an increase in travel, nor to the potential cost of constructing new court facilities or renovating established courts to accommodate the newly-formed districts.

Russel Kimes, Judge of Probate, District of New Canaan The problem with the governor's proposal is that the small courts are not losing money. The losses come from the regional courts that collect no fees and cost the state $2.5 million a year and four of the big city courts that also have lost money in recent years, albeit nowhere near the losses of the regional courts. There has been no results based accounting evaluation of the effectiveness of these courts and therefore no evidence that they are anything more than an unnecessary costly duplication of DCF and the Superior Court Juvenile and Child Protection Session.

I proposed an across the board reduction in all judges' compensation, lifting the current cap on the charges to an estate, and lifting the current cap on fees charged for approving accountings.

Reported by: Dennis Carroll

Date: 4/27/09