Can/Will The Judicial Branch Sue The Governor?

Short answer: Yes/maybe.


On Monday, Chief Court Administrator Patrick L. Carroll III wrote a letter to Governor Malloy and the Democratic and Republican leadership in the General Assembly.  The letter described the proposed budget cuts to the Judicial Branch as “both unprecedented and catastrophic in its consequences,” adding that there are “only about 3,700 staff members in the entire Judicial Branch.” As CT News Junkie reports, “this would equate to about one in six Judicial Branch employees being laid off.”

But, the letter did more than bemoan the likely impact of the proposed cuts; it strongly suggested that the magnitude of the cuts might be unconstitutional. Judge Carroll wrote:

The reason that this letter is coming from me, as opposed to Chief Justice Rogers, is that we are concerned that the reduction in funding is so extreme that a constitutional challenge may be raised.

The Judicial Branch is a co-equal branch of government.  While it must rely on the General Assembly and the governor to appropriate funds for the operation of branch, there is body of law that recognizes a constitutional obligation on the legislative and executive branches to appropriate sufficient monies to ensure that the Judicial Branch can meet its constitutional obligation to administer justice “without sale, denial or delay.” Connecticut Constitution, Article first, § 10. Judge Carroll’s letter is thus a shot across the bow, a warning to the governor and the legislature that if the proposed budget cuts are actually implemented, a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the cuts may very well follow.

The leading case on this issue in Connecticut is the state Supreme Court’s 1984 decision in Pellegrino v. O’Neill, 193 Conn. 670. The specific question the court addressed in that case was whether it could order the governor and the legislator to appoint more judges, on the theory that the lack of a sufficient number of judges was preventing the Judicial Branch from meeting its constitutional obligations under Article first, § 10.

A divided court concluded that it did not have the legal authority to order the governor or the legislature to appoint more judges. However, the court’s opinion provided ample support for the proposition that insufficient funding of the Judicial Branch could raise a justiciable constitutional argument.  As Justice Shea explained:

The principle has been widely recognized that the judiciary, as an independent branch of government, has inherent power to direct other governmental agencies to provide such funds as may be necessary for the reasonably efficient operation of the courts. See, e.g., O’Coin’s, Inc. v. Treasurer of the County of Worcester, 362 Mass. 507, 287 N.E.2d 608 (1972); Commonwealth ex rel. Carroll v. Tate, 442 Pa. 45, 274 A.2d 193, cert. denied, 402 U.S. 974, 91 S. Ct. 1665, 29 L. Ed.2d 138 (1971); Zylstra v. Piva, 85 Wash.2d 743, 539 P.2d 823 (1975); cf. Ex Parte Peterson, 253 U.S. 300, 312, 40 S. Ct. 543, 64 L. Ed. 919 (1920); see generally note, “The Courts’ Inherent Power To Compel Legislative Funding of Judicial Functions,” 81 Mich. L. Rev. 1687 (1983); note, 59 A.L.R. 3d 569 (1974). The duty imposed upon the courts to provide a constitutionally adequate system of justice capable of securing the rights and liberties of the people cannot be thwarted by a refusal of the legislature to appropriate funds necessary for that purpose. “In the absence of a special appropriation the existence of a law requiring an expenditure to be incurred is an appropriation of money for that purpose, and the law imposes on the comptroller the duty of settling and adjusting demands against the state for such expenses.” State v. Staub, 61 Conn. 553, 563, 23 A. 924 (1892). A fortiori, the constitutional obligations to provide justice without undue delay and to afford due process of law must be taken to empower the courts charged with that responsibility to have access to the state treasury in an emergency for any funds reasonably necessary for that purpose.

So, will the Judicial Branch actually file suit against its co-equal partners in government? I don’t know. But I don’t think Judge Carroll is in the habit of make idle threats.

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