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.