Depending who wins a contested citywide election, a recovering crack addict will face either a “judge” or a “judge/social worker” in her quest to regain custody of her children.
Clifton Graves Jr. met the recovering addict in Scantlebury Park.
“Listen,” the young woman told Graves. “I was a former crack addict. Years ago probate court took my child away. I was just unfit to be a parent. I turned my life around. I’ve gone to rehab. Now I want to go back to probate court and reinstate my parental rights.”
Graves met her as he campaigned to become the judge that woman and others in a similar position would have to convince on their day in court. Graves is the Democratic nominee in the Nov. 7 election for probate judge, a position that’s becoming vacant for the first time in 32 years upon the retirement of Jack Keyes. Graves faces Republican candidate Melissa Papantones.
The winner will serve out the last year of Keyes’s four-year term. The job pays $125,000 a year.
On a recent episode of WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven,” Graves and Papantones discussed the Scantlebury Park encounter. They discussed in general how they would approach the position of probate judge: a job that involves making life-changing decisions for the people they preside over in court, such as granting child custody or committing people to mental institutions or deciding whether a scammed senior needs a trustee or settling family disputes over wills or estates.
The candidates offered slightly different takes on the role of a probate judge, while agreeing that the position requires “compassion.”
“The individuals coming before you are looking for help and hope,” Graves said. “Judge Keyes has said this many times: He’s like a ‘judge-slash-social worker.’”
The legislature’s intent in making probate judge an elected position — the only such elected judgeship in Connecticut — reflects that perspective, Graves argued.
Papantones responded that she sees the position as “more judge than social worker.”
“There are times when I think the judge maybe does act as a social worker, because not everything requires an immediate decision. Sometimes people just need to be heard. Sometimes people just need a little guidance. But that’s not all that happens in a probate court. That’s not all that a probate judge does…. Ultimately decisions have to be made. Somebody has to lose. Unfortunately that’s the way our legal system is.”
“The way our system is set up, it is a win-lose proposition in most courts. [But] the way the probate court is set up, you’re folowing the law [and] at the same time justice is what you’re looking for” in particularly sensitive personal situations involving vulnerable people, Graves responded. Papantones argued that that holds true in many courts including probate court.
That discussion led to each candidate’s qualifications for the job.
Each spoke of professional experiences that prepared them to handle the kind of thorny disputes that land in probate court. Both are attorneys who have served as hearing officers, Papantones as a court-appointed special master and arbitrator, Graves in administrative proceedings. Both have written wills, served as administrators of estates.
“I have been a litigator for 30 years,” said Papantones, who’s 58. “I deal with rules of evidence every day. I understand discovery. I understand how to present evidence.”
She argued that her experience handling cases for clients of insurance companies is particularly relevant to serving as probate judge. Insurance companies refer to her clients who are being sued for, say, car crashes or accidents in their pools. “I become the intermediary, she said. “I also have to be objective when I evaluate my cases.”
Papantones has also served on the boards of the Community Action Agency, Cultural Affairs Commission, and New Haven Symphony Orchestra. She has worked as a continuing legal education instructor for the bar association and for the Connecticut Bar Foundation, which promotes “equal access to the legal system for poor and underserved communities.” Click here for the campaign’s website.
Graves, a 64-year-old graduate of Tufts University and Georgetown University who has been active for decades in New Haven’s civil rights circles, argued that his community experience gives him the edge for the third “c"of the needed qualifications for the job: “connectedness.” (The first two “c"s: competence and compassion.)
He spoke of helping to resolve everyday people’s disputes as a board member of Community Mediation Inc., as director of diversity and equity at Southern Connecticut State University, as a staff lawyer for two mayors (Biagio DiLieto and John Daniels) and for the city housing authority, and in his current job as director of Project Fresh Start, the Harp administration’s prison reentry program. Other boards on which he has served include AIDS Interfaith Network, the Commission on Equal Opportunities, and the NAACP. He has served as a diversity trainer for the Anti-Defamation League as well.
“It is absolutely necessary, imperative, that there be a connectivness to the community, the communities that you’ll be serving, the individuals coming before you looking for help and hope,” Graves argued.
Click here for the Graves campaign’s Facebook page.
Some Papantones supporters have raised the fact that the state suspended Graves’ legal license between 2001 and 2010 because he failed to make $75 annual payments into a “client security fund.”
Asked about that this week, Graves argued that the matter isn’t relevant to the race. “It was a mistake,” he said. “It wasn’t willful.” He had moved to North Carolina and hadn’t received forwarded notices about the money due, he said. He also wasn’t practicing law during that time, he said, beyond offering pro bono help to some people. And he eventually paid back the money. (Click here for a previous article detailing the incident and Graves’ explanation, published when he ran for mayor in 2011.)
Papantones, meanwhile, faces the challenge of convincing New Haveners to vote for a Republican in a city where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans 16-1. The national party these days does not enjoy a compassionate reputation in blue enclaves like New Haven.
For the most part, said Papantones, a Vassar and Emory law graduate, she doesn’t see much relevance in party labels when it comes to serving as a judge. “Except Republicans tend to be fiscally conservative, which is why I’m a Republican. When you’re dealing with other people’s money, that could be a good thing,” especially when that involves the money of minors.
She regularly faced the “why are you Republican?” question the two times she ran again then-State Sen. Toni Harp, Papantones said. But she hasn’t faced it in this race.
“When people understand what probate court is,” she said, “they immediately stop politicizing it.”
But under Connecticut’s system, seeking a probate judgeship is a political process. Graves and Papantones disagreed on the wisdom of electing probate judges.
“Probate court shouldn’t be a political position. Unfortunately we have to run on a party line. This is a very serious position. There are a lot of people that are served by the probate court. They are vulnerable,” Papantones argued. She noted that a Judicial Selection Committee vets the qualifications of nominees for other judgeships, whom the governor appoints and the legislature confirms — or in the case of small claims court, whom a clerk of the court appoints.
“Most things that happen in court are emotional. They’re difficult,” she said.
Graves cited “a certain arrogance” in the idea that professional associations can vet a probate judge better than voters can.
He argued that the legislature had demonstrated a conscious intent in singling out probate judges to be elected, and that it reconfirmed that intent when revisiting the issue a decade ago. “There are many lawyers who vetted this and weighed in on this,” he noted. “The decision was made that this would be the one position that the people would have some input in.” New Haveners will offer that input next month for the first time in decades.
Click on or download the above audio file to hear the full episode of WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven” with probate judge candidates Clifton Graves Jr. and Melissa Papantones.