Chief Justice Richard A. Robinson keeps a guitar in his chambers, and it’s not just a memento left unused in the corner. “When I get stressed,” he says, “I pick it up and start playing. I try to play a little bit every day. It just puts you right in a zone; everything goes away.”
We have a Renaissance man leading our state’s Supreme Court. He favors the Doobie Brothers as well as Geoffrey Chaucer, the British writer of The Canterbury Tales. Oh, and he’s also an advanced martial artist. “I tell people I’m a Supreme Court justice and they say, ‘Nice.’ Then I tell them I’m a fourth-degree black belt and they say, ‘Wow!’ And when I say I speak Middle English …”
Robinson laughs as he recounts this, but it’s no joke. He really does have a fourth-degree black belt in karate (his wife is at sixth degree!) and he really does have a solid command of Middle English. He recites some verses of Chaucer in that beautiful vernacular during our talk in an ornate room of the Supreme Court building in Hartford.
If I had asked, our friendly chief justice surely would have gone to his chambers, brought back his guitar and played a few bars of “Listen to the Music” for me. “I love the Doobies!” he says. “Their music is easy to play and it’s got a nice rhythm. I also like George Benson and Eric Clapton.” He notes that when he was young he played rhythm guitar for a band called Scorpio. Then he adds a band to his hit parade: “George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. Every once in a while you’ve got to have some funk!”
Without missing a beat, he tells me: “I love Chaucer. The only way to read Chaucer, for me, is in Middle English.”
But there is another noteworthy thing about Robinson: he is the first African-American Connecticut chief justice. “It means more to me every day,” he says. “I knew it was history-making. But what I didn’t realize was the impact of it on other people. When I speak at charter schools with African-American children, they are stunned to see a black chief justice. It says something that this is so unusual. We need to get to the point where that’s normal. I think we are getting to that. It’s been a long road. But I’m an optimist.”
Robinson is modest despite his easy self-confidence. “Did I ever think I would be chief justice of the state of Connecticut? Not until the very moment that Gov. [Dannel] Malloy offered it to me.” When the big phone call came one day last spring to Robinson’s home in Stratford, he told his wife, Nancy, he wasn’t going to bother answering it because he thought it was a robocall. But she advised him to pick it up because it might be important.
Robinson readily recalls his upbringing in Stamford under the firm guidance of his parents, Herbert and Dorothy Robinson. “I miss my dad dearly,” says Robinson, whose father died in 2012. “He had limited formal education but he was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He read all the time. You couldn’t take a book out of his hands.” Robinson says his dad had a variety of jobs, including being a porter. His last job was working as a machinist in Stratford. His mother still lives in Stamford.
“My parents were incredible people. My mother has always been very proud of me. She instilled in me the message I could go as high as I wanted to go, if I made the maximum effort. But did she think in 1957 [the year Robinson was born] that I could ever be Connecticut’s chief justice? I don’t think she saw that.”
Robinson says his parents “almost went into bankruptcy to give me an education, but I got student loans. They bought a car for me to commute to the Stamford branch of UConn. A Datsun 610! Bright orange!”
Robinson went from UConn to West Virginia University School of Law. It had a good reputation but, more importantly, it was affordable.
He remembers the geographic transition as “problematic.” During his housing search, “I saw all these rental signs that said ‘available.’ I’d call up and they’d say, ‘It’s available.’ Then I’d show up and they’d tell me, ‘It’s not available.’ It took me a while to figure it out. Then I thought: ‘Oh, wait a minute — this is about my color.’ ”
He adds, “Eventually I found a wonderful family and rented from them. There’s good people and not-so-good people everywhere.
“That experience really helped me do what I’m doing now, with issues of justice, diversity and inclusion. My personal experience helps me understand some of the impediments people have when they come to court.”
Robinson is impressed with his colleagues in the state Judicial Branch; he calls them “bright, dedicated people who are passionate about what they do.” But he worries about the ongoing budget cutbacks, resulting in 370 fewer full-time employees in the branch than four years ago.
“I ask people to do more with less all the time. But there comes a point when it’s not viable. We have important things to do, including juvenile issues and dealing with an aging infrastructure.”
Robinson also wants to make the courts more accessible and affordable to the middle class. “What about the person who has a house but also a mortgage and gets into legal trouble? It can destroy people financially.”
Robinson often quotes a Greek proverb: “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they shall never sit in.” He changes “old men” to “people.”
He adds: “You may get little benefit out of doing something, but people you will never meet will get a benefit from it. I tell younger judges how important their role is. It’s their job to plant those trees. We have the power to change somebody’s life. I encourage our judges to use that power wisely.”