New chief justice wants to improve confidence in judiciary

May 13, 2018
In this Thursday, May 10, 2018 photo, New Connecticut Chief Justice Richard Robinson poses in the state Supreme Court hearing room in Hartford, Conn. Robinson, the state's first African-American chief justice, said he wants to improve public confidence in the judiciary and ensure the system is fair to everyone. (AP Photo/Dave Collins)

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut Chief Justice Richard Robinson feels the pressure of his new job and welcomes the challenge. He also acknowledges the added weight of being the first African-American leader of the state Judicial Branch.

“But it’s the kind of weight that I’ve always felt,” the 60-year-old Stamford native said. “It’s the kind of thing where I’ve been the first in a lot of things that I’ve done and always knew that eyes were on me — sometimes for the wrong reasons, sometimes for the right reasons. But I think anyone in this position feels a tremendous weight and responsibility. It’s scary, and I think that’s probably a good thing.”

After serving more than four years as an associate justice on the state Supreme Court, Robinson was nominated for the top post by Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and approved by the legislature earlier this month. He succeeded Chase Rogers, who retired in February after nearly 11 years as chief justice.

The nomination came after a bitter fight among lawmakers over Malloy’s first choice, Associate Justice Andrew McDonald, who would have been the first openly gay state chief justice in the country. McDonald’s nomination was rejected as Republicans accused him of being an “activist” judge, while Malloy and fellow Democrats suggested Republicans had an anti-gay bias, which the GOP denied.

Robinson stayed away from that political quagmire during an interview with The Associated Press.

“I think those questions are better answered across the street,” he said, referring to the nearby Capitol building.

Robinson said his top priorities include improving public confidence in the judiciary and continuing efforts championed by Rogers to make sure everyone, including people who can’t afford lawyers and those with disabilities, has equal access to the justice system.

“People seem to have lost confidence in the government,” he said. “We have to find ways to reach out to people to get them to have more confidence, and I think the way to do that is to educate the public on what our role really is. If people don’t trust in your system, people don’t believe in your system, you’ve lost.”

Robinson, a married father of two adult sons and a black belt in karate, said Connecticut courts are among the highest ranked in the country when it comes to the public’s access to the justice system, but he believes the judiciary needs to do more to make sure residents know that.

He’s also aware many minorities and low-income people believe they’re not getting a fair shake from the justice system. Those concerns are being addressed through training and committees focused on cultural competence, people with disabilities and people with limited English-speaking skills.

“We have to be active about making sure that people know that we’re doing the best we can to make sure justice is equal,” he said.

Robinson has a long-held interest in social justice. Before becoming a state judge in 2000, he served as president of the Stamford branch of the NAACP and chairman of the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.

Both Democrats and Republicans praised Robinson during the nomination process.

Timothy Fisher, dean of the University of Connecticut School of Law, said Robinson has “enormous integrity. He’s got strength of character. He’s a good listener and understands that everybody has the right to be understood, everybody deserves dignity and everybody has a role in solving our problems.”