Judge Race Heats Up; Endorsers Split

Christopher Peak Photo Upper Westville Democrats are torn on judging whom they want adjudicating cases in probate court: a practitioner in that area of the law, a familiar face in the neighborhood, or a service-minded newcomer.

The neighborhood’s Ward 26 Democratic committee Wednesday night found they couldn’t decide whom to endorse after hearing from three candidates seeking to become the next New Haven probate judge, an elected position that is opening for the first time since 1986 now that popular incumbent Jack Keyes is retiring.

Now there are three candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for the position. All three showed up to a joint meeting of the Ward 26 and Ward 27 Democratic committees (which also represent parts of Beaver Hills, West Hills, Amity, and Beverly Hills) at Mauro-Sheridan School to share their bonafides and seek support. Some 60 ward committee members showed up.

Their 10-minute speeches were a crash course in the purpose of probate court and the earnest expressions of three attorneys’ desires to help more New Haveners from the other side of the bench.

Immediately after, the Ward 26’s town committee members retired to a room to deliberate (where the press wasn’t allowed to observe) and took an advisory vote. In the divided field, no one candidate reached a majority — leaving the two co-chairs, Amy Marx and Sharon Jones, with a tough decision about how to reflect the divergent viewpoints at a Democratic Party nominating convention later this month. Ward co-chairs cast the votes at the convention to decide whom the party will endorse in Sept. 12 primaries.

Probate court is familiar to most as the place where one goes to divvy up an estate after a death. The candidates Wednesday night explained that its most essential purpose is maintaining the safety of children and families by handling adoptions, guardianships and other custodial matters.

The probate court develops plans to care for the elderly (including some end-of-life decisions), the mentally ill and the intellectually disabled. The probate court also hears some procedural matters, like name changes or business pseudonyms.

The seat is the only judgeship in the state that is chosen through a partisan election process. Judges serve four-year terms; the position pays an annual salary of $125,000.

“All three of us lament the fact that we have big shoes to fill,” said one of the candidates, Clifton Graves. “I told that to Judge Keyes and he said, ‘Big pants, too.’”

Attorney Americo Carchia, a regular sight in probate court, was the first to file papers announcing his candidacy. From an Italian immigrant family, he was the last of his five siblings, and the only one born in America: hence, his name. Mentored by Keyes, Carchia says the issues in probate court have “become my forte.” He continued, “It’s what I’ve accomplished in the last 22 years, and what I wish to continue to do, as the judge.”

Carchia pointed out that he’s held practically every role an attorney can have in the court (including being one of the two attorneys supervising the children’s probate court), so he knows how to empathize with all the parties in any decisions he’d make. If elected, he said, he wants to expand the court’s partnerships with community service organizations and government agencies. For example, he proposed saving the courts money by asking local universities to provide volunteer conservators for the sick and elderly, rather than appointing paid social workers. “Those people [in social work and teaching programs] need to learn how to do this,” he noted.

Graves, the charismatic director of the city’s reentry program, Operation Fresh Start, appeared (at least on Wednesday night) to be Carchia’s main challenger. Graves touted his long record of service with the city, including stints representing it on the corporation counsel and at the housing authority. (Graves made an unsuccessful bid for mayor in 2011.) He pointed out that he has learned how to both investigate and adjudicate cases from his experience on the Commission on Equal Opportunities and as a diversity compliance officer at Southern Connecticut State University.

Graves said he’d bring compassion to the role, recognizing that probate court should be a welcoming place to Elm City residents.

“Judge Keyes, I don’t think he ever wore a robe, because it’s set up by design to be a people’s court,” Graves noted. “You go into court, and everyone’s at the same level. The judge sits a couple feet away and just has a conversation. That’s the ambiance that’s created for regular folk to feel comfortable there.”

He added, “That compassion has to be driven, in my mind, by connectedness. And I’ve been a part of this community, lived and worked and served in this community for 30 years.”

The final contender, Orlando Cordero, is a native New Havener raised in the Hill who recently returned to the Dwight neighborhood to continue his law career. A graduate of Yale College and Boston University’s law school, Cordero works as a staff attorney for Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut. “Some of you know may know that if you have a problem with housing or divorce or losing public benefits, you tell them to call the Legal Aid hotline. Chances are that you might get me on the other line,” he said. Cordero is taking a leave of absence from that position to run. His motivating principle? “Justice is not blind, but should serve the most underserved,” he said.

After speeches by the three lawyers, as well as the city clerk, a Board of Education member and the two mayoral candidates, 21 of Ward 26’s Democratic Town Committee members discussed in a backroom how they hope their two co-chairs will vote at the July 25 party convention. By law, the committee members collectively pick a candidate for alder to endorse, but their other votes are merely advisory — a kind of straw poll — to help the two co-chairs make up their minds. Unchallenged so far, Alder Darryl Brackeen, Jr., won an endorsement, as did Mayor Toni Harp. (Harp and party challenger Marcus Paca both addressed the group, again presenting a divergent set of views on New Haven as they did at this previous Westville ward committee event: Harp presented a safe and economically bustling city that’s improving public schools while Paca portrayed a city struggling with major problems under failed leadership.)

The vote for probate judge was more divisive. On the first ballot, nine votes went to Graves (a resident of the ward), eight to Carchia and one to Cordero, along with three abstentions.

That put Marx and Jones in a pickle: If no candidate won an outright majority, whom should they nominate?

As Marx saw it, there were three options: (1) Both co-chair votes could go to the “highest vote-getter,” (2) a run-off vote could be held between the top two candidates, akin to the ranked-choice system used in Ward 25, or (3) the co-chair votes could be split “to represent the diversity of views.”

They put those three options to a vote, and a large majority picked the final option, leaving it up to other New Haveners to contemplate the wealth of options available to the court.

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posted by: southwest on July 13, 2017  9:23am

Stop playing political games and favoritism to people that you knowingly isn’t qualified to do the job by there employment history….Please vetted all this people properly by doing background investigations..In my opinion Americo Carchio is the best candidate because he was trained by Judge Keys and no the make up of the legal process..plus he’s committed and have a suprbe background and work history…Grave on the other hand ??? Questable?? Just Goggle !!

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on July 13, 2017  10:08am

Get rid of the crooked political hack ward committees and let the voters do the electing with the use of IRV.or Ranked-Choice Voting.

posted by: westville man on July 13, 2017  10:22am

I repeat my prior post here:

No one can replace Judge Keyes- he’s special and was uniquely qualified for the position. I must respectfully disagree with my good friend, 3/5ths.  This is the one job that is not about politics – it is a difficult and complex position that requires someone with experience, intelligence, compassion and patience.

I know Attorney Carcia personally and he is one of the few people who could approach the standards that Judge Keys has set. He knows this area of law well, he has common sense and intelligence, and has the patience and compassion to do the job.

Clifton Graves should stay in his current position and continue to do his good work. In my opinion, this position is not for him.

posted by: 1644 on July 13, 2017  11:06am

First, children’s matters are heard in a regional court, not the district probate court.  While Judge Keyes is currently the administrative judge for the New Haven region, I don’t think it’s a given that his elected replacement will hold that position.
Second, once again, New Haven voters ignore competency for skin color and politics, and political patronage.  Graves and Codero seem to have zero experience not only in probate court, but seem never to have practiced ANY family or trusts and estates law.  These are the areas a probate judge needs knowledge of and experience in. Have these folks ever drafted a will?  A trust?  A springing power of attorney? Have they served as conservators or attorneys for incompetents?

posted by: robn on July 13, 2017  11:10am

WVM,

Thank you for that info.

posted by: Mary Brown on July 13, 2017  11:14am

Clifton Graves is a New Haven resident who is obviously committed to the community and he has a wealth of diverse knowledge and experience necessary to do the job of Probate Court Judge. He is more than charismatic, he is an extremely intelligent man who spoke eloquently about his vast knowledge of the legal process and the need to be connected to the community in which you serve. The other two candidates Carchia and Cordero did a fine job presenting but Clifton Graves is the best person by far for the job!

posted by: Noteworthy on July 13, 2017  11:44am

Westville:

The idea that the Probate Court under Keys is not political is pure fiction and a laughable one at that. He held that postion because of Democrat politics - and the powers that be in the party saw great benefit.  I get that everybody thinks Keys is second only to God - but temper your adulation by some reality. It is what it is. By the way - google the Probate system in Connecticut - as a whole, it is outdated, expensive and can be horribly abusive. It should be eliminated.

posted by: Inside 165 on July 13, 2017  12:03pm

All that is wrong with New Haven is highlighted here.

A lawyer who has been practicing in this field of law with the probate court, a system that actually sought his advice on issues, for over 23 years.

vs

A lawyer, by title only, who holds a law license that was suspended for 9 years and doesn’t practice law.

http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/graves_acknowledges_inexcusable_tax_fee_missteps/

vs

A lawyer who answers 1-800 callers.

I’d like to say that this surprises me but sadly it doesn’t. Since a fair amount of the Alders are the poster children for the uninformed and clueless it would only make sense that a fair amount of the people that nominate them would be too.

posted by: robn on July 13, 2017  12:09pm

NOTEWORTHY,

How is the Probate Court abusive?

posted by: LoveNH on July 13, 2017  2:12pm

Clearly, @inside_165 has it right regarding qualifications of the 3 candidates to any impartial observer.
However, Graves is from ward 26 and thus had the “home field” advantage and personal connections.
Thus, the split ward vote does not surprise me. It was a vote about the most qualified guy versus the neighbor you know and love, and that can be a tough choice.
What is a DELIGHTFUL surprise in this town is that the ward co-chairs proceeded to transparently discuss the options of dealing with a split vote and followed the will of the large majority of the committee in granting one vote to each of the top two finishers.  Brackeen’s team in 26 showed us that democratic process is still alive in NHV.

posted by: westville man on July 13, 2017  2:56pm

Noteworthy- What i meant was he doesn’t play politics in the Court.  It is one of the most difficult courts in the state and it is run far better that many of the smaller, less congested ones. He will be near-impossible to replace- republican, democrat or independent.  The reason why people seem to put him up on a pedestal is that he rare combination of intelligence, compassion and patience. It is an elected position, but the position isn’t, and shouldnt be, political.

And the Regional Children’s Probate court is even tougher….

posted by: westville man on July 13, 2017  3:23pm

Noteworthy-  What would you replace it with?

posted by: Noteworthy on July 13, 2017  5:19pm

The Hartford Courant has done stories for years on the abuses in the Probate Court - a lot of seniors; a lot of estates who have been drained by fees of the court, of the lawyers who are friends with the probate judge.

Replace it with what? I’m not sure but it needs to be replaced and funded differently. There should be more control over the judges and the lawyers who practice in front of it. I tend to think the judges should be appointed not elected.

posted by: ElmCityVoice on July 13, 2017  6:00pm

Attorney Americo Carchia is the obvious choice to replace Judge Keyes. He knows the office and is a well respected colleague. Graves jumps from job to job. That gives me pause; I have to wonder why.

posted by: robn on July 13, 2017  6:36pm

ahhh,

Heres a 2006 NYT article saying that the Probate Court system in general is terrible.

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/05/nyregion/nyregionspecial2/judges-and-lawyers-debate-probate-system.html

posted by: westville man on July 13, 2017  8:02pm

Noteworthy. I agree with your last point

Robn.  That story was 2006.  A lot has changed since then.

Too much to detail. Maybe some other time.

posted by: robn on July 13, 2017  9:07pm

WVM

change for better or worse?

posted by: Jessica J. on July 13, 2017  11:40pm

In response to “Inside 165”‘s comment about Mr. Cordero being a lawyer who just answers 1-800 calls…this man has probably directly helped more low-income clients then both of the other two candidates combined. It takes sacrifice for a Yale educated attorney to take a pay cut and work for a non-profit company. I called this legal aid line and spoke to Mr. Cordero last year. He guided me through the court process and helped me fight my landlord so that I wouldn’t lose my security deposit, something I needed to feed my kids. He’s a life long New Haven resident, speaks the language of the people and understands the change needed for New Haven. Please do not write him off as just some third party candidate. Give him a shot over the corporate run system that is showing way too much favoritism these days.

posted by: westville man on July 14, 2017  8:37am

Robn-  for the better.  Fewer courts, more court oversight and restrictions of financial matters (countering Noteworthy’s concern about fees, expenses, etc) and a $2M exemption before any estate tax kicks in.  That’s just a few improvements…..

posted by: Noteworthy on July 14, 2017  8:53am

Estate tax is different from Probate fees.

posted by: Noteworthy on July 14, 2017  8:56am

Btw, good example of how politically connected probate can help pols - check out how the estate of Wendell Harp was constructed, planned and executed…and by whom, and who benefitted.

posted by: westville man on July 14, 2017  9:14am

Noteworthy-  of course tax and fees are different.  But it’s still money out of the estate.  The fees fund the court and IMO, are not extravagant.  You cite Wendell Harp,  and I’ll can cite 150 cases where the Court was more than fair and reasonable- and protected the family finances from pilfering (by family members or others).

posted by: Seth Poole on July 17, 2017  11:15am

Thank you Jessica J.  New Haven has managed to be consistently governed by a system of cronyism in which New Haven natives have been exempted.  The next generation needs an opportunity to build the city into one that is starkly different from the New Haven of old.

I support Orlando Cordero for Probate Court Judge; a man committed to marginalized people who is of New Haven and cares deeply for our city.  New vision from a much more connected generation to the real issues that affect the lives of New Haven’s citizens.

posted by: Dwightstreeter on July 17, 2017  6:05pm

Where are the women candidates?
Maybe we need a 50/50 representation in gov’t law the way they do it in Europe.