A lack of courthouse staff and the “grossly inefficient” handling of criminal cases has prompted the state’s top administrative judge to order the consolidation of Superior Court facilities in Stamford and Norwalk.
The Norwalk courthouse has been closed since March 2020 due to the pandemic, forcing its cases to be heard in Stamford, and will not reopen for that purpose under the order by Chief Court Administrator Judge Patrick L. Carroll III.
“It is clear that the way operations are currently being conducted in Stamford, with Norwalk cases being handled only two days each week, is a process that cannot continue,” Carroll wrote in an Aug. 24 email to staff obtained by CT Examiner. “The manner in which cases are currently being processed in Stamford is grossly inefficient and leads to unnecessary delay in the processing and disposition of the cases. We simply need to find and implement greater efficiencies. We cannot continue to operate in Stamford as we have for the past 2.5 years.”
Carroll also wrote that “due to the continuing loss of judicial branch staff, particularly security staff in our Marshal Services Unit, our ability to resume normal court operations in the Norwalk GA continues to be a very unlikely prospect.”
In a statement to CT Examiner on Thursday, Carroll said the Norwalk courthouse is not closing.
“Business will continue to be conducted in Stamford/Norwalk as it has been conducted since early 2020,” he said. “Rather than lying vacant and unused, the Norwalk building will continue to be used for important judicial functions. The Judicial Branch will realize greater efficiencies by continuing to manage, and further streamlining, the combined caseloads of Norwalk and Stamford in Stamford.”
The Norwalk courthouse will house other Judicial Branch functions, including the relocation of Adult Probation offices from a leased space now being used, and some community outreach functions, he said.
“We will also use the courtrooms and lock-up space as training facilities for several of our units, most notably, our Marshals,” Carroll said in his email.
Carroll also told CT Examiner that the changes reflect “the elimination of in-person infractions dockets, and the fact that small claims cases and other matters such as pre-trial conferences are now being handled virtually.”
“All of these considerations and our increasing reliance on remote technology make it impossible for the Branch to return to anything similar to pre-pandemic operations in the Norwalk Courthouse,” he said. “We are pleased that a reconfigured Norwalk Courthouse will remain a vital part of the community.”
The closure and consolidation could impact a case backlog that was greatly exacerbated by the pandemic, which essentially halted in-person jury trials at all state courthouses.
In-person trials resumed in June 2021.
Under Carroll’s order, the clerks’ offices in the two courthouses would be merged into one and would be handling cases “five days each week.”
“We intend to implement this change as quickly as possible,” Carroll wrote.
Carroll said he has notified Judge John Blawie, Administrative Judge for the Judicial District of Stamford/Norwalk, of the plan.
“He has assured me that he will work with the State’s Attorney and the Public Defender in Stamford to assure that this transition is successful,” Carroll wrote. “The current process being utilized in Stamford to process the Norwalk cases is grossly inefficient (and) leads to unnecessary delay in the processing and disposition of the cases.”
Most cases are disposed of without a trial, which can typically take up to a year or more to begin after a defendant is charged.
If a defendant cannot make bail and is jailed while awaiting trial, the proceeding must begin within eight months.
After that deadline passes, the defendant can file a motion for a speedy trial, and the charges are dismissed if that does not happen within 30 days.
Statewide, there was a backlog this spring of more than 50,000 criminal cases, down from a peak of about 80,000, according to an article in the Connecticut Law Tribune.
Significant backlogs also were seen in civil and family matters.
This story has been updated to include comments by Carroll