Superior Court Judge E. Curtissa R. Cofield — who in recent years has served two disciplinary suspensions, one for 240 days after hurling racially charged taunts at a black state trooper during her October 2008 drunken-driving arrest — has applied for reappointment when her current term expires next year, The Courant has learned.
Cofield — who in 1991 became the state's first African American woman to be appointed as a judge — has served long enough to qualify for a full judicial pension of $108,500 annually if she retired at the end of her latest term eight-year term on June 6, 2015, as some observers had thought she might after her highly publicized troubles. Those troubles included her referring to a state policeman as "Negro trooper" during her DUI arrest, as well as a 30-day suspension last year for allowing child-protection cases involving foster children to languish long after the legal deadline.
However, Cofield, 65, has initiated the confidential process of applying for the state Judicial Selection Commission's recommendation that she be nominated by the governor for reappointment. Approval votes by both the state House of Representatives and Senate would be required for confirmation of her reappointment.
Such applications, and the selection commission's deliberations, are protected by law from public disclosure. But several sources have told Government Watch that Cofield was interviewed by the selection panel in the past two weeks as part of its secret decision-making process.
Cofield's application to the commission had to be filed by now or she would have lost even the prospect of renomination by the governor next year. A decision by the panel is still pending, sources said.
Cofield's hopes cannot go forward without a positive recommendation from the commission, according to a state law that requires the panel to "evaluate incumbent judges who seek reappointment" a year before their terms expire, and to "forward to the Governor for consideration the names of [any] who are recommended for reappointment."
Whichever way it ends, Cofield's effort is likely to spark controversy — if the strong public opinions voiced by the public and press to her past problems are any indication.
Cofield declined a request by The Courant to interview her or to submit written questions to her. Also, the Judicial Selection Commission's chairman, Robert S. Bello, a Stamford lawyer, did not return calls from The Courant on Thursday and Friday.
Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's office would not say Friday whether it's even a possibility that he would choose to renominate Cofield next year — that is, if she gets recommended by the selection commission and if he wins re-election in November. Malloy's communications director, Andrew Doba said Friday it would be "inappropriate for our office to comment at this point in the process."
Cofield is one of 16 state judges, including Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers of the Supreme Court, whose terms run out in 2015. There's a presumption in state law that "each incumbent judge who seeks reappointment…qualifies for retention in judicial office," and "the burden of rebutting such presumption shall be on the commission."
That means the 12-member commission (with six members appointed by the governor and six by General Assembly leaders) would have to justify its case if it were to deny Cofield another eight-year term.
Such a process could take months and would include a formal hearing, if, as the law says, "a preliminary examination" by the commission "indicates further inquiry is necessary before a recommendation of reappointment may be made."
The judge could request that the hearing be open to the public. A judge who receives a negative decision can, within 10 days, "request a rehearing" by claiming "the conclusions of the commission are contrary to the evidence presented at the hearing."
Ultimately, though, "the decision of the commission shall be final" and there's "no right of appeal by any judge appearing before the commission," the law says.
The selection commission is based in Hartford but has been holding its meetings in recent months in New Haven City Hall. It reviews the qualifications not only of incumbent judges, but also lawyers seeking to get on the eligibility list for first-time appointment as judges. Factors that the law says it must consider include "legal ability, competence, integrity, character and temperament."
Superior Court judges are paid $154,559 a year, and starting July 1 that salary rises to $162,751. The mandatory retirement age for judges is 70, but they can retire before that if they've put enough time in, as Cofield has. They also can remain on the bench after retirement by taking status as either senior judges or "judge trial referees" at the part-time rate of $232 a day. That "per diem" rate will rise to $244 on July 1. Cofield would need to win reappointment in order to do even that kind of part-time work beyond June of next year.
Both of Cofield's unpaid suspensions — eight months in 2009 and a month last year — were imposed by the state's Judicial Review Council.
She was arrested in October 2008 after her car hit a state police cruiser parked at a Glastonbury construction site. Four months later, the Judicial Review Council imposed the 240-day suspension — which Cofield called "awfully harsh" but didn't appeal. Cofield apologized for threats and abuse she heaped on police officers in the incident — and told the council that she had trouble recognizing herself in a two-hour video recording of her booking at Glastonbury police headquarters.
'Not A Racist'
"My use of racially insensitive language is reprehensible, incomprehensible and regrettable," Cofield said at the time, attributing her insults "to my intoxicated condition, as I am not a racist."
On the police video, Cofield asked state police Sgt. Dwight Washington, who was processing her on the DUI charge: "Do you have a reading on my urine test, Negro trooper?" She also said that she was "sick of being treated like a freaking Negro from the 'hood,'" and, when asked if she had an illness and needed medication, she said, "Negro-itis." A police report on the incident said: "Judge Cofield stated that she was the most intelligent person in the room and threatened our careers."
At the time, Michael Lawlor — then the co-chairman of the General Assembly's judiciary committee, and now a top official in Malloy's budget office — said of Cofield's reported threats to the police officers' careers: "It's one thing to make a mistake; it's another to abuse your power. That's a career-ender, for me."
It didn't end her career, though. Lawlor and other lawmakers had thought of acting on their own to remove Cofield if the Judicial Review Council didn't take strong enough action, but they were satisfied that the sanction was severe and that Cofield accepted the suspension without appeal.
After Cofield returned from that suspension, she was transferred from the adult criminal court to the state's juvenile court, which operates behind closed doors. But then the state Department of Children and Families found out that Cofield had inexplicably failed to act in four cases involving 10 children who had been removed from their biological parents for abuse or neglect. That stalled adoptions or other permanent placements for the children and DCF Commissioner Joette Katz sought an Appellate Court order against Cofield, compelling her to rule in the four cases by April 1.
When asked at a Judicial Review Council hearing last year if she accepted a guilty plea to one count of "neglectfully and incompetently performing the duties of a judge" Cofield answered, "yes, but with an explanation."
She talked for about 20 minutes about her life — saying she attended school in the segregated South, got her first job after law school working in the Hartford corporation counsel's office, and then was appointed as the state's first female black judge in 1991 by then-Gov. Lowell Weicker. She said her DUI arrest "brought great shame to myself and my family."
Cofield continues to serve now at the juvenile court in New Britain. Despite her problems in the recent past, she still has supporters. At the review council meeting last year, former state Rep. William Dyson cited her work in the community, saying, "Her life has been dedicated to reaching out and helping other people and that will not end here today."
Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter@jonlender.