Graves Makes Bid For Probate Bench

Markeshia Ricks PhotoThe woman had been living in the woods in a tent, disowned by her family, homeless and battling substance abuse. New Haven’s Probate Court judge asked attorney Clifton Graves Jr. to help her not only get into treatment but find permanent stable housing.

Graves went one step further after being appointed her conservator. He helped her reestablish a relationship with a member of her family.

Graves recalled that story in describing why he’s now running to become probate judge himself, in a three-person race.

Graves has served as the director of the city’s prison re-entry program, Project Fresh Start, since 2014. He said opportunities to help people like the woman who found herself far from her California home and living in New Haven drew him into the race to succeed Probate Judge Keyes, who is retiring in January.

Probate is the only elected judgeship in the state. Judges serve four-year terms; the position pays an annual salary of $125,000. Candidates are required to live in the district where they serve.

The probate court deals with adoptions and custody cases. It also can sort out what to do with an estate after someone has died and how to protect the rights and money of people who are elderly and physically infirm.

Graves faces two opponents for the seat that Keyes has occupied for over three decades, attorneys Americo Carchia and Orlando Cordero. (Read this article about a recent ward committee meeting in which all three candidates recently participated.)

Graves said while he has enjoyed helping men and women reintegrate into society after incarceration, he’s ready to offer “help and hope” in a different capacity.

“What I’ve learned over time is that we all have contributions to make in different forms and different settings,” he said. “I’m certainly honored to have served in the Harp administration and thank the mayor for giving me this opportunity to be of service ... The reason I’m throwing my hat in the ring for probate judge is that I believe that there is another level of service that I can provide.”

Graves, 64, has been a fixture in city government and social justice circles for more than 30 years, having served in different capacities under three mayors. He received his undergraduate degree from Tufts University and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has served as assistant and deputy corporation counsel for the city, as a staff attorney for the city’s housing authority and as the director of diversity and equity for Southern Connecticut State University. He made an unsuccessful bid in 2011 for mayor.

Graves said his varied experiences, including seven years of working with the probate court system, make him a natural candidate for probate judge.

“Having a law degree and having over 25 years of experience in the legal field has more than equipped me with the necessary tools to serve effectively and efficiently as probate court judge,” he said.

The People’s Court

Graves said he believes that the person who succeeds Keyes has to have three qualities—or the “three Cs”: Competence, compassion, and connectedness.

He said he has had experiences both as an attorney serving as a hearing officer and as an administrator having to weigh and interpret state and federal laws. He said that has helped him develop the competence needed to adjudicate the many matters that come before a probate court judge. He said getting to watch the way Keyes conducts court — without wearing a judge’s robe or sitting on a high bench — and being involved in the intimate details of someone’s life through the court and his own many civic commitments over the years taught him the compassion needed tobe efficient and effective,fair and just.

He said he wants to continue his family’s legacy of commitment to serving New Haven. His mother was a public school teacher; his father served two terms on the Board of Education. His two adult children are a product of the New Haven Public Schools.

“The voters of New Haven decide who is going to serve as their probate judge,” he said. “Why is that? Probably because the legislature understood that the probate court judge deals with everyday problems and issues that confront our families, our children, our elders, our mentally, physically and intellectually disabled and all of that as well as wills and estates and other issues. In many ways, it is truly a people’s court.”

“Folks love and respected Judge Keyes because he is down to earth,” he said. “He was a people person and that made him effective and respected. The person who succeeds him has to bring that as well to build on that foundation he has established.”

Making The Law Respectable

The woman who once lived in a tent in the woods is now in an independent living facility. She’s still mostly estranged from her family, but through continued outreach, Graves said, her sister was convinced to come and visit her.

“I’m still her conservator, ” he said. “It was a very sad and tragic situation that I was thrust into, but I’m pleased to say after several years now that her situation is far better now than when I was assigned the case.

“To call it a happy ending is too simple,” Graves said. “But it is one that at least has had positive results thus far. That experience and many others that I can account for have demonstrated the role a probate court can play. The fact that Judge Keyes saw fit to appoint me for this particular client means that he thought that someone with my background and experience would be effective at meeting her needs.”

Graves said if elected he would continue Keyes’ legacy through the Thomas Keyes Fund. Keyes established the fund to help alleviate some of the financial stress of would-be guardians taking on the full-time care of children. He said such a fund is more important than ever because of the state’s ongoing financial crisis.

“This is not Fairfield County, Darien or New Canaan,” he said. “This is New Haven, where many people are not like my client, who came from wealth but come before the court with a low to moderate income. They are often grandmothers who don’t have enough resources to take care of children and grandchildren. “

He said if he is elected he would like to see the pool of people who are designated as conservators expand. The current pool is composed mostly of attorneys. He said he’d like to see more people who come from caring backgrounds and who are studying to be future lawyers, social workers, and health care professionals. He said he’d like to partner with Southern Connecticut State University to get graduate students and professors involved.

He said he also wants to see court forms simplified.

“I have heard of those with professional degrees having a difficult time filling out these forms,” he said. “Imagine what someone who is working class might go through trying to figure out these forms. It is certainly a challenge, to say the least, to complete the forms and I would like to make them more user-friendly for the clients and those who avail themselves of the court.”

Graves said he wants to do what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandies said should be done over 100 years ago.

“He said, ‘If we desire respect for the law, then we must make the law respectable,’” Graves observed. “So my position is Judge Keyes has done that, and I want to continue to make the law, the probate court and the court system respectable. By that I mean fair and just, providing the help and hope that folks need.

“Fairness and justice are essential to make the law respectable,” he said.

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posted by: Razzie on July 19, 2017  4:51pm

I have had the opportunity to know Attorney Graves for several years in a number of activities here in New Haven. I am, first and foremost, impressed with his compassion and breadth of professional experiences—most of which have focused upon impacting the lives of New Haven’s dispossessed citizens. Ask anyone in the social services field and they will vouch for his passion and thoroughness in his efforts helping people. And his 30plus years of legal practice skills and long history as a professional educator makes him even more effective as a judge in the types of problems that come up in the probate system. In fact, when I see Cliff in this light, I am struck by how closely his character and temperament reminds me of Jack Keyes.

posted by: westville man on July 19, 2017  10:18pm

So he serves one full term before he has to retire at 70? Too late Cliff- stay where you are needed and most effective.

posted by: 1644 on July 20, 2017  9:03am

Another commentator insinuated that Graves has been suspended for several years.  Is that true?  If so, why isn’t that included in this story.  This seems just another mindless fluff piece from NHI that reads like a press release, rather than a piece of journalism.  BTW, if Graves wants to make law, he should run for the General Assembly.  As for the forms, they are made at a state level, and must conform with statutory requirements.  A newbie isn’t likely the be one of the chosen judges to recommend changes.  Glad to hear he has experience as a conservator.  Has he ever settled an estate?  Does he understand trust, gift, and estate law, including tax implications?  Has he felt with contested wills?  The probate court deals with everyone, rich and poor.  A probate judge should have experience with both.

posted by: Brian L. Jenkins on July 20, 2017  12:01pm

@ Razzie,

“His temperament reminds you of Jack Keys?”  Are you kidding me?  Why not Thurgood Marshall?

You were doing great in describing him until you stumbled at the end.

Cliff is a great guy.  But I cannot support him in this Harp attempted monopoly grab.  If anyone of these candidates resembles Jack Keys, it’s Americo Carchia who has been working with Jack for over 21 years. 

If Cliff was motivated to run on his own, he [perhaps] would’ve had all of my support full stop.  But my sources and political acumen tell me that that isn’t the case at all. 

I had the pleasure of meeting Americo who shared with me his desire to continue spreading the Jack Keys flavor citywide.  Flavor was my word of choice.  However, like many in this city, my family knows Jack’s benevolence full well.

There are many in the black community who will read my comments and question my support for Americo (who is white) over Cliff (who is black).  My response is simple.  I don’t support someone black just because they’re black.  John DeStefano had a plethora of black opponents over the years, and he received a great deal of support from the black community against them.  Like many of those who may question my support of Americo over Cliff today, I too questioned their support for DeStefano then.

Americo’s the right guy, for right now.

posted by: westville man on July 20, 2017  12:51pm

1644.  I believe his license was suspended numerous times for failure to pay an annual fee (security fund fee) that attorneys must pay.  He was reinstated after catching up with his payments.

posted by: robn on July 20, 2017  1:03pm

I’d go for it too since the CT court system has such a sweetheart pension system. Work a couple of hours a week for a few years and then retire in splendor.

posted by: westville man on July 20, 2017  1:58pm

Robn.  They changed the Judges pensions a few years back.  And probate judges need 10 years I believe.

posted by: Razzie on July 20, 2017  2:49pm


Good to see you on another campaign.

But it’s unfortunate that your view of the world seems to begin and end with Mayor Harp. I am not aware that Attorney Graves’ run for Probate Court has anything to do with a “Harp attempted monopoly grab…” (your words).

If you really mean what you say ...  “If Cliff was motivated to run on his own, he [perhaps] would’ve had all of my support full stop.” I would suggest that you take the time to talk to him about his credentials, motivation and intentions. But you apparently feel more secure in seeking out third-party sources who, like you, have probably not made any attempt to contact Cliff. No matter, that’s what election campaigns are all about. The 3 probate candidates [Yes, there are 3 candidates]. I wonder if you bothered to talk to the third candidate - Orlando Cordero.

My preference for Graves is based upon my years of experience with his work and his intimate involvement in the fabric of New Haven’s life—where he has not only advocated for the poor, the sick, the dispossessed, and all others without voices in this system; he has rolled up his sleeves on countless occasions WITHOUT COMPENSATION to do what was needed. Can I dare to ask you what your endorsement of Carchia is based upon. It is my understanding that he has endured his entire practice living in North Haven and officing there. Perhaps you have met him there. Or did you meet when he recently took up residence in New Haven to support a run for office.

During the election campaign the voters will meet and measure the candidates. Some may even weigh our respective assessments. But I am certain that the voters’ choices will be based on their own independent assessments of the candidates.

PS: I don’t see your pick as being a racial affront. You can support whoever you want, without anybody imposing a litmus test. My only concern would be that you are not fully informed in the underlying facts. Talk to Cliff ... if it matters in your selection.

posted by: robn on July 20, 2017  3:17pm


Thank you for the update!

posted by: 1644 on July 20, 2017  3:23pm

Westville, thanks.  I wonder if he paid his $650 occupational tax every year.  The Client Security fund fee is pretty much a nuisance, being not so much money.  I don’t consider missing it that serious, not like a certain minister who stole a client’s funeral funds.  If it happened repeatedly, however, it shows a lack of attention to detail and poor paperwork management.  On the trusts and estates side (including conservators of incapables’  estates), the probate court is all about attention to detail and paperwork.

posted by: Brian L. Jenkins on July 20, 2017  4:24pm


I don’t need you to lecture me on Cliff or NH politics.  I’m extremely educated in both. 

Regarding my contacting Cliff, I spoke with Cliff briefly at a ward 18 meeting about three wks ago or so.  We left off with Cliff telling me “that he was going to call me.”  I’m yet to hear from him.  I don’t take that too personal, however, as you know personally, a persons word matters to me greatly.  If you tell me something and don’t do it, you’re a liar. 

As you will note, I concurred with the bulk of your description of Cliff.  However, as has been said by me already, I know him too. 

Regarding my mentioning of Mayor Harp in everything political.  As I have said, I know NH politics extremely well and am in constant contact with others who do too.  You my friend will do yourself well if you focus more on being a student upon reading my words, rather than trying to be a Yale biologist in trying to dissect them.  (Laugh)

Regarding how long Americo has lived in NH.  One thing you; and everyone else reading my comments will notice that I dare not ever get personal when commenting politically.  There’s many unsavory facts I can spew about several candidates and incumbent mayors.  But my character will never allow me to be pigeonholed by you and others to inadvertently or advertently coax me into such mudslinging.

Funny, the last time both you and I sparred, you took issue with me injecting myself into the current mayoral race.  I dare not attempt to quote you verbatim, but the gist of your comical words to me were to fashion the idea of allowing the two candidates to hash out their political differences and for us to stay out. Well my good friend, here’s a coincidental apropos moment for you to swallow your own advice.  What do you think?

posted by: geneva on July 20, 2017  9:58pm

Clifton’s license was suspended and reinstated in 2010. Clifton has dedicated over 30 years to serving the New Haven community.  He also lives in New Haven. Americo Carchia has lived in North Haven since November, 1999 and recently moved to New Haven because he is seeking Judge of Probate. I don’t believe this should keep him from running a campaign and being elected Judge of Probate.  For example, Joey Rodriguez, former alder was allegedly found driving under the influence and is assistant to US Senator Blumenthal, Sergio Rodriquez, former alder allegedly worked illegally for the Housing Authority while holding elected office, Carlton Staggers , alderman has prior criminal convictions. These incidents point out human frailties which did not and should not preclude anyone from public service.

posted by: Meow Mix on July 20, 2017  11:46pm

Clifton Graves has no business sitting on the bench…of a court, at least. 

It is difficult to describe the incredulity that I have in even seeing that he thinks himself deserving of the position.  He didn’t pay his taxes and was prosecuted for it.  He didn’t pay the client security fund for several years and was suspended from law practice for a about a decade. And this is the man who is going to hold fiduciaries accountable for not performing their duties?  Am I the only one who sees the irony?

I would like to hear if Mr. Graves has acted as trustee for a trust.  Or administrator or executor of an estate.  Or attorney for a minor child in a guardianship or termination of parental rights proceeding.  I wonder if Mr. Graves has ever had to represent another party in any of these proceedings.  And if he has, I bet I can count the times on a hand or two. 

And it’s not like Mr. Graves is even an accomplished attorney in another field.  He is the head of a social service agency that doesn’t even engage in the practice of law.  His experience in the actual practice of law is rather slim.

The candidacy of Mr. Graves is nothing short of a joke, and a bad one at that. That he has gotten this far within the party demonstrates the downside our one party town.

posted by: geneva on July 21, 2017  8:04am

I think it speaks volumes that someone seeking this office would attempt to circumvent the process knowing full well they are not a resident of the district and take up residence only two weeks ago to seek the candidacy Judge of Probate.

Despite owning property in New Haven, Americo has not lived in New Haven. He has lived on Ridge Road in North Haven since 1999 and last I checked his house is not on the market to be sold.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on July 21, 2017  8:23am

posted by: geneva on July 21, 2017 8:04am

I think it speaks volumes that someone seeking this office would attempt to circumvent the process knowing full well they are not a resident of the district and take up residence only two weeks ago to seek the candidacy Judge of Probate.

Despite owning property in New Haven, Americo has not lived in New Haven. He has lived on Ridge Road in North Haven since 1999 and last I checked his house is not on the market to be sold.

But you can say the same thing about Tomas J Reyes who works for the mayor and lives in Oxford. Corporation counsel John Rose Jr move from Hartford to an apartment in downtown New Haven.He owns a six-bedroom, three-bathroom house in Hartford, according to that city’s property records. It is the same address he listed when he was first hired in New Haven a year ago.They all do this.Your point.

posted by: jamesj@newhaven on July 22, 2017  8:41am

Cliff is a nice guy and no one should doubt his commitment to New Haven.  But the truth is anyone who has worked with him learns fairly quickly that he is pretty ineffective.  Poor follow-up, doesn’t grasp details, can’t be counted on to get things done that really make a difference.  These traits do not inspire confidence in him as a Judge.

posted by: southwest on July 25, 2017  7:37am

James@newhaven and Threefifth I agree with your comments regarding Graves,don’t have elaborate on the topic anymore…