CT justices uphold use of distant hearings in baby custody circumstances
The use of remote hearings to adjudicate cases involving parental rights during the pandemic was upheld by the Connecticut Supreme Court this week, the latest case in which the court approved of government protocols to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The court’s decision was handed down through a trio of “slip opinions” published Monday by Justice Andrew McDonald, who was joined by all six of his fellow justices in finding that the courts did not violate either the state or federal constitution by moving many activities — including some non-jury trials — online during the early stages of the pandemic.
Each of the three companion cases were appeals brought by a parent or parents who lost custody of their children during the pandemic, in trials that were held virtually over Zoom.
Seeking to reverse the lower court rulings terminating custody, attorneys for the parents had pointed to clauses in the Connecticut Constitution vesting judicial power in the courts which ‘shall be open” for every person. Those clauses, as well as rights to due process under the US Constitution, should have given the parents the right to face a judge in-person to have their competency as parents decided, their attorneys argued.
McDonald, however, wrote that the language in the state’s constitution had more to do with giving all citizens the ability to seek redress through the courts — while still noting the unprecedented nature of the questions prompted by the pandemic.
“The text of these constitutional provisions says nothing about whether trials must be conducted in person,” McDonald wrote. “Our courts have never had occasion to interpret either provision as imposing such a requirement.”
In two of the cases decided Monday, the high court unanimously ruled to uphold the trial court’s decision regarding termination. In a third case, the justices unanimously rejected the constitutionality arguments related to virtual hearings, while splitting on another aspect of the case related to the visitation rights of one of the parents.
The court’s ruling on each of the cases was first reported by the Hartford Courant. As slip opinions, which are used in all juvenile matters, the court’s decisions took effect immediately.
In a statement Tuesday, Department of Children and Families spokesman Ken Mysogland said the agency was “satisfied” with the court’s ruling, which he said validated safeguards put in place by the judiciary during the pandemic to ensure safety and fairness.
“Ensuring timely permanency for children required creativity and flexibility during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mysogland said. “While the manner of court proceedings was impacted, we did not believe the integrity of the system was compromised.”
The appellate attorney listed for the parents in all three cases, Albert Oneto of Hamden, did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
The judiciary began lifting many of its pandemic-era restrictions in early 2021, prompting jury trials to resume last June following a 15-month hiatus. Some court matters, meanwhile, are still being heard through a combination of remote and in-person hearings.
Attorney General William Tong, who represented the state on appeal in all three matters, also praised the court’s ruling in a statement released by spokeswoman Elizabeth Benton.
“After closely examining the circumstances under which the trials were conducted, we are pleased the Court concluded that the trial court acted appropriately,” Benton said.
In his three opinions, McDonald did note a variety of technical glitches that interrupted the proceedings, such loud background noises that caused a judge to pause testimony and failed internet connections.
In one of the cases, both parents argued on appeal that the trial court should have helped them gain better access to the proceedings because they lacked the money to purchase reliable devices with internet access, but McDonald noted that the couple failed to make such a request until after the trial.
“Although we do not address whether a trial court may conduct virtual trials in circumstances other than during a pandemic, we take this opportunity to emphasize the importance of ensuring equal access to justice when a court undertakes a virtual trial,” McDonald wrote in one of the opinions. “Equal access to justice is particularly significant in the context of virtual hearings and trials given the digital divide.”
In a previous ruling, the court sided with Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration to uphold executive orders that forced bars to close earlier in the pandemic. The justices also ruled last month that the governor’s order did not provide shuttered businesses with an excuse to get out of paying rent.