NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Police officers are going to Stamford to process arrests. Attorneys and their clients are in the same boat, as is and anyone else who would, pre-COVID, go to the Norwalk Courthouse.
Connecticut courthouses were shuttered due to COVID-19. While most have reopened, “Judicial Operations remain suspended in both the Enfield and Norwalk Court,” Rhonda Hebert, Program Manager of Communications for the Connecticut Judiciary said.
Everyone’s going to Stamford, which is short on judges, according to States Attorney Paul Ferencek.
Norwalk Attorney Michael Corsello, a former Norwalk Common Council member, is frustrated and dismayed.
“It causes a lot of inconvenience to local residents who work at the courthouse, let alone those who use it. And here we are the sixth largest city in the state, without something that’s the symbol of the embodiment of the rule of law. It seems silly,” Corsello said.
Hebert clarified that the courthouses aren’t “closed.”
“Operations remain suspended in these two locations, Enfield – a one-judge courthouse, and Norwalk – a two-judge courthouse, to provide for the most efficient use and deployment of Judicial Branch resources and staff, significantly security staff, as the Branch continues to manage its operations in the face of pandemic-related challenges,” she wrote.
By “security staff,” she means marshals, Corsello said.
“Whenever I go to the Stamford courthouse, there’s certainly no dearth of marshals around and about,” he said. “As far as having manpower to cover Norwalk, I can’t imagine that’s the case but the priority is getting services into these courthouses. I mean, Derby is a very small courthouse, two judges, and Ansonia-Milford, are both part of the same geographical area. Both of those courthouses, which utilize multiple judges are open, and they don’t have any close to the volume or the traffic issues that we have down here.”
He said, “I just can’t imagine what the explanation is …If you need more security than you hire more security. That seems to me a very small price to pay to keep our court system operating efficiently.
If you combine the geographic areas ordinarily served by either the Stamford or Norwalk courthouses, you find the population served is the largest one for any G.A. in the state, the Connecticut Law Tribune wrote in a Sept. 30 opinion.
Norwalk historically ranks seventh or eighth in the state for its level of court business, the Tribune continues, asserting, “Given the state owns the Norwalk courthouse and Norwalk personnel are still employed and reporting to Stamford, there is no visible financial advantage in not operating in Norwalk.”
Ferencek, speaking to the New Canaan Police Commission recently, said Norwalk and Stamford had six judges between them, pre-COVID. Now, “We have four judges, plus one judge that’s a part-timer or who does both civil and criminal.”
He said, “Stamford is a growing community, Norwalk as well, to give this Judicial District four judges I think is really problematic.”
“As recently as February there was a 50-judge shortage in Connecticut. Because of that shortage and because of the pandemic, Norwalk Court functions were sent to Stamford,” Mayor Harry Rilling said. “We’ve had no indication of when there will be more judicial appointments. Chief Court Administrative Judge Patrick Carroll is communicating with the Governor to resolve the situation.”
On Friday, State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25) said, “I had a conversation with Judge Carroll this week. In fact, his office and mine have been in regular communications for many months regarding the status and re-opening of the Norwalk Courthouse.”
He said, “It has been represented to me that the courthouse will in fact open again. The exact date is not known. As we come out of the pandemic and court operations continue to increase, the need to utilize the building will be greater.”
Corsello spoke of fighting rush hour traffic to get down Interstate 95 and make it to the courthouse by 9 a.m.
“It’s causing a tremendous backlog of cases,” he said. “And it’s got to be a strain on local law enforcement; every time they want to get a warrant signed or transport a prisoner they have to drive all the way to Stamford in order to do it. Especially some of the suburban departments like a Weston, they might only have three, three or four policemen on duty at a time. If two of them have to spend it traversing 95 back and forth to Stamford, that doesn’t leave the town very well protected.”
Norwalk Police Chief Thomas Kulhawik confirmed, “We now bring prisoners and paperwork to Stamford Court. We also go there to have warrants signed since Norwalk is not open.”
Ferencek said the backlog of cases began when all the courthouses closed.
“Stamford was fortunate in July to have done a jury trial that went to a verdict but …other than that case, from March 2020 to now, we have not done any jury trials. Other than that one, we’re backed up incredibly,” Ferencek said. “…We have 31 pending homicide cases sitting in this jurisdiction.”
There used to be two or three jury trials going on concurrently in Stamford and Norwalk and, “Now we have less judges, we’re lucky if we can do one. So we are really at a crisis point where we need we need judges to hear these cases we have, you know we have enough staff, but we need judges.”