The Court of Last Resort
“It’s imposing,” says James Senich, my tour guide of the Connecticut Supreme Court, and considering the hallowed space has witnessed great debates for over a century, it’s hard to argue.
Completed in 1910 at a cost of $3.5 million (which would be over $100 million today), it was designed by renowned architect Donn Barber in the Beaux Arts style with the express purpose of being “spectacular.” Walls are made of granite. Floors, staircases and columns are fashioned from imported Italian marble. Light sconces are covered in genuine gold leaf. Wall panels in the courtroom are hand-carved from oak. Larger-than-life portraits of noteworthy chief justices look down on the proceedings from around the three-story-high courtroom, while the golden dome of the State Capitol across the street (where the court was originally located) shines through the ornate Palladian windows.
Two enormous murals by Albert Herter adorn the courtroom: Behind the bench is “The Signing of the Fundamental Orders 1638-1639,” which depicts Thomas Hooker and other founders of the Connecticut colony with the first written constitution in U.S. history; on the ceiling “An Allegory of Education” celebrates the triumph of knowledge and experience over ignorance and superstition.
“Every time I walk in here, I get goose bumps,” says Senich, who is also the manager of communications for the External Affairs Division of the Connecticut Judicial Branch. “It reeks of history.” Appropriately, the Connecticut State Library and the Museum of Connecticut History are also both housed here.
The “court of last resort” was founded in 1784, primarily to examine appeals of court rulings. Originally, the governor, lieutenant governor and select members of the General Assembly served along with the judges, but when the state constitution was established in 1818, the judiciary became an independent branch of the state government. Known as the Supreme Court of Errors (“of Errors” was dropped in 1965) and composed of nine judges for many years, it now features one chief justice and six associate justices, all appointed by the governor and approved by the legislature.
The Supreme Court is an appeals court, which means that rather than presenting a parade of witnesses and evidence to establish a case, be it criminal or civil, attorneys here argue only technical legal issues. Verdicts have already been rendered in lower courts, so oral arguments are made directly to the justices—no jury is involved—centering around whether the processes in reaching those lower-court decisions were flawed, and if so, requesting that they be overturned.
The court hears cases during eight two-week sessions from September to June, usually with three consecutive hour-long hearings a day at 10, 11 and noon.
At the beginning of each day in court, the marshal calls the courtroom to order, everyone rises and the justices enter from their chambers behind the bench. Each carries documents related to the day’s particular cases—normally a stack of papers thick enough to put War and Peace to shame—that they have already reviewed.
The chief justice begins and runs the hearing, and the attorneys on each side introduce themselves for the record. Each has 30 minutes to present his or her argument; the side appealing the decision goes first and usually reserves time at the end for a rebuttal. While the attorneys lay out their arguments (often citing rulings from other pertinent cases), the justices pepper them with questions. On the attorneys’ lectern are lights that change from green to amber to red as their allotted time expires.
The current chief justice is Chase T. Rogers, who is also head of the entire judicial branch, and as you might expect, she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. During the hearing I witness (all are open to the public), she is courteous and affable, but dogged and direct—I’m sweating just watching the attorneys in the crosshairs handle her questions. The experienced ones are like politicians, spinning answers in their favor; less polished ones shuffle uncomfortably through notes before responding.
Following oral arguments, the chief justice raps her gavel and court adjourns for the day. The justices then retire to the their chambers (a small conference room) to take preliminary votes for each of the cases they’ve heard, after which the chief justice assigns one of the justices in the majority of each to prepare a draft opinion. With the help of clerks—who often do the bulk of legal research—the justice writes the decision, which is passed around to the others for review. The final ruling is released weeks, months or longer after the arguments have been made.
Free tours of the Supreme Court (when not in session) are available to anyone, including school groups and those interested in legal history. Being married to an attorney, I’ve indirectly gained a good working knowledge of the Connecticut legal system, so Senich doesn’t have to simplify his presentation for me much more than what he tells fourth-graders who visit. Still, like the court itself, it’s impressive.
For more info or to arrange a tour, call (860) 757-2270 or visit jud.ct.gov.The Court of Last Resort