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Remarks of Judge Paul Knierim at his Swearing-In Ceremony as Probate Court Administrator,
October 1, 2008

Good morning and thank you for taking time from your busy schedules to attend this ceremony. I know how precious your time is, and I want you to know how much I appreciate your coming. The day would not be the same without you.

 

About 35 years ago, in 1973, I remember coming to this beautiful courtroom and watching as my father, Glenn, was sworn in as probate court administrator. In truth, the most memorable part of the day was being allowed to have ice cream at lunch Ė bear in mind that I was 8 years old at the time. But something about the experience obviously stuck with me. As far as I know, probate is not genetic, but it did somehow find its way into my blood.

Itís been a very special thing for me to follow in my fatherís footsteps as judge of probate in Simsbury and now as administrator. So allow me to introduce my parents, Glenn and Gloria, who of course need no introduction at all for many of you. I know of no two people who more epitomize integrity, compassion, and wisdom. And who have been ever stalwart in their support of me, despite the twists and turns along the way Ė and I suppose there have been a few.

May I also introduce you to my partner Greg. Heís the fun one, according to my 13-year-old niece. I mean no disrespect to any of you, of course, but Gregís company is the part of the day that I most look forward to. Iím very glad that my brother and sister-in-law are also here, Chip and Linda. The law seems to run in the family -- Chip is also an attorney, and I have two nephews in law school now. Please also meet my sister, Lynne, who drove all the way from Jamestown, Rhode Island this morning, and who works in the non-profit sector.

Iíd like to express my great appreciation to Chief Justice Rogers for appointing me as administrator. At least I think a thank you is appropriate Ė Iím certainly hoping that I can still feel grateful a year from now! I do want to say how much I respect and admire the Chief Justice. She is a leader of great skill and intellect, and her focus on building public trust and confidence in the courts is a very fitting example for all of us in the probate system. I am very enthused to have her as my new boss.

Iíd also like to express special thanks also to Chief Court Administrator Barbara M. Quinn. Judge Quinn has been most supportive during this period of transition and I am very grateful for the excellent guidance that she has given me. I might add that Iíve enjoyed getting to know the staff here at judicial administration, and look forward to our ongoing collaboration.

I am very honored that former Chief Justice Ellen Peters is with us today. Chief Justice Peters gave me my first job out of law school, as a law clerk. It was a tremendous experience to work for such a brilliant jurist Ė even if I could barely keep up with her. I learned so many things that year that have stayed with me throughout my career, and I am very thankful to have had the opportunity.

I want to extend a thank you and welcome all of my colleagues from the probate court system who are here today, judges, clerks, and probate administration staff alike. Iíll single out three people from that group Ė my co-workers Julie Lavissiere, Debbie Trovato, and Pam Baldini. They keep the Simsbury Probate Court running shipshape and I am privileged to work with them. Iím happy to see that the probate administration staff is also well represented today. I know that Iím joining a team of distinguished professionals today when I head over to 186 Newington Road after the ceremony.

Special thanks to my predecessor, Judge Jim Lawlor, who has guided the probate courts during a particularly difficult period. His accomplishments are many, including the innovative regional childrenís courts and the Melissa Project to improve support for individuals with mental illness. He has strengthened our continuing education program, and he has worked to computerize all of our probate courts. Additionally, Judge Lawlor has done some important work across the street at the legislature as we figure out how to handle our financial problems. So, on both a professional and personal note, Judge Lawlor, thank you for your dedication, your hard work, and your commitment to improving the services we provide to the residents of this state.

Also here today is another prior probate court administrator, Judge Paul Kurmay. Paul had a great deal of influence over my initial decision to run and has been a mentor, trusted colleague and friend ever since.

And a note of thanks to my friends and colleagues from various aspects of my previous walks of life who are here today. Iím very glad to see you and appreciate your presence.

As I said to the Probate Assembly just last week, I am fully aware of the challenges that the probate system faces, but I come to this new role with both enthusiasm and optimism. My positive attitude springs from my knowledge that the judges, clerks and administrative staff of the probate system are dedicated and hard working professionals who embrace an ethic of public service. We do have flaws, but the hallmark of our system is our collective commitment to providing compassionate and knowledgeable service to individuals as they face some of the most difficult times of their lives. What we do makes a positive difference in peopleís lives. Whatever changes the future may bring about, I think we can all agree that we should fight to preserve this essential quality.

That said, like any other organization, we have significant room for improvement. We must continually strive to promote the highest professional and ethical standards, while at the same time making sure that we do so in the most cost-effective manner possible. We must also confront head-on our two greatest challenges: No. 1, our financial crisis, and No. 2, the significant erosion of public confidence in our probate courts.

Our financial situation is sobering to say the least, and the math isnít particularly complicated. In a nutshell, we have a $3Ĺ million dollar deficit this fiscal year, a number that is projected to balloon to nearly $6 million by 2010. We have less than two years worth of savings in the bank to cover the shortfall; if we do nothing, we will be bankrupt by July 2010.

The judiciary is able to function only when the public has trust in the courts. We cannot ignore the fact that many are skeptical about both the competence and integrity of the Connecticut probate courts. Let me just say, while I donít believe that all of the criticism leveled at us has been completely fair, the commentary has undeniably and negatively influenced the publicís perception of our courts. Moreover, our critics have been correct in some areas. We need to implement changes that will strengthen our professionalism and restore the publicís trust and confidence in what we do.

To respond in a way that prompts constructive change, we in the probate community must work together as a team. We must step away from the extremes that have characterized past debates and find common ground. Additionally, we must work together with our external stakeholders Ė the executive and legislative branches, the leadership of the Judicial Branch, the bar associations, users of our courts, taxpayers and groups with special concerns. They all have a significant interest in our future, and our collective success depends on an open dialogue with both our internal and external audiences. And the time to do so is right now, because we have precious little time to build the necessary consensus as the critical 2009 legislative session approaches.

Some of you have heard me relate the situation of the probate system to a beloved old historic building on Main Street in your town or city. The architecture of the structure is lovely and irreplaceable; you and your family have attended many events there. It is an icon of the community.

But there are problems. The roof leaks. The wing added a few years ago has cracks in the foundation. You canít hear a thing inside, and the water heaterís about to blow. The heating bills are enormous, and the Board of Finance is demanding that something be done to reduce costs.

As I see it, the community has 3 options:

Number One: You let the building stand as is, ignoring the problems, but knowing that it will eventually fall under its own weight.

Number Two: You tear it down and build something brand new.

Number Three: You take a hard look at the structure and determine how to best use it. You make some choices about whether every wing should be preserved. You perform repairs, beyond the Band-aid approach, and make investments to make it energy efficient. The restoration gives it a new lease on life while preserving its heritage.

If that old building is a metaphor for the probate system, I support option No. 3, and thatís why Iíve taken on this new job. We have a lot of challenges ahead of us. Yet amid the challenges are great opportunities. If we work together, we can craft long-term solutions that will enable us to do the best job possible in providing essential services to the residents of Connecticut. I look forward to working with all of you in that endeavor, and thank you again for joining me today.


 

 

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