One of the kindest things you could have said about Connecticut's Probate Court system until very recently is that it was quaint.
Until last year you didn't have to be a lawyer to be a judge on the more than 300-year-old court. As recently as 1987, there were 137 probate courts, one for nearly every town, a convenience meant for those traveling to court by surrey. The pay for judges, who worked part time in the smaller towns, was based on their courts' fee collections, which left many judges with very high wages for very little work. Judges from one small town frequently represented clients in probate hearings in neighboring towns, making for a very chummy arrangement.
As recently as last year, there were still 117 courts. Today, that number is down to 54 and a system that was on the verge of bankruptcy returned more than $10 million to the state treasury in the past two fiscal years. It has become something of a role model for consolidating state services and might even inspire such overdue reforms as money-saving, multi-town purchases of expensive equipment and regionalization of smaller school systems with single superintendents in charge.
The probate reforms, most notably the belated requirements that judges be lawyers and that they base pay on work, were a long time coming.
In the early days, probate courts were mainly responsible for settling estates when the deceased hadn't left a will or the estate was in dispute. But over the centuries, they assumed additional responsibilities like paternity questions, adoptions, guardianships for children or disabled adults and other matters that one would think necessitated legal training.
By 2006, John Langbein, a Yale Law School authority on probate and estate issues, was calling Connecticut's probate courts "a national scandal" in testimony before a legislative panel.
"It's the few against the many," Mr. Langbein told the Program Reviews and Investigations Committee. "A handful of people with lucrative vested interests imposing what amounts to a tax on decedents' estates and their beneficiaries. These judges are lavishly overpaid in cash compensation and then lavishly overpaid in perks, obtaining Cadillac-level health insurance for a part-time job of a few hours a week."
But the judges were not without power and influence and among those on their side was the chairman of the Investigations Committee, Rep. J. Brendan Sharkey of Hamden, who for a time blocked the reforms after arguing that the abuses were anecdotal. Asked by The New York Times about requiring judges to have studied the law, Mr. Sharkey (UConn School of Law, '89) said, "I think that's somewhat of an elitist position."
By the way, Mr. Sharkey is expected to succeed Rep. Christopher Donovan as speaker next year.
In the face of such opposition, The Day and other state newspapers kept up the editorials demanding change. Still, it took several more years before the Judicial Department, working with the legislature and Gov. M. Jodi Rell, was able to approve reforms.
While by most measures the consolidation is a success, problems left over from the old system remain. In early June, The Hartford Courant reported the estate of Francis "Hi Ho" D'Addario, a colorful Connecticut entrepreneur killed in a plane crash 26 years ago, remains mired in a dispute over millions owed to a creditor, the Cadle Co. In a suit filed in Bridgeport Superior Court, the creditor charges that "there has been no meaningful judicial review for over 20 years."
And so, while achieving economies and returning millions to the state represent a good start, some work on the legal functions of probate courts may still be in order.