Bully In A Small Playground

By Andy Thibault Connecticut Law Tribune

Richie Damiani stepped in it big this time, after many years of abusing his power.

The veteran Superior Court judge had one of his more recent cavalier actions exposed by a federal ruling. A would-be adoptive mother wanted to tell the world about supposed abuses by the state Department of Children and Families and Juvenile Court, where Damiani was presiding. This did not sit well with Damiani. He found the woman in contempt for failing to remove critical information from a Web site based in Texas.

If Damiani wants to be an Internet publisher, he should buy his own Web site. Otherwise, Damiani should keep his unclean hands off the First Amendment. It's a good thing for citizens of the other 49 states that his reach does not extend beyond Connecticut.

"We don't think it's appropriate for a judge to tell a citizen not to talk to the press about alleged government abuses," said Phil Tegeler of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union.

The federal ruling, by U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton, gave standing to a journalist who has been covering the case. Journalist Allan Brown now has the right to challenge Damiani's ruling, given his First Amendment rights to hear the woman's story and report on it.

"This woman has a lot of reason to think the system has let her down," said Brown, the New York-based reporter who plans to write and publish a series on the case. "I'll report on what happened when DCF was supposed to be looking at the welfare of the child."

Lawyers who practice before Damiani say he is usually courteous and always efficient. Cops and prosecutors love him.

But, as one former prosecutor said, "He always has been a bully. He is very cavalier about people disagreeing with him."

Take the case of the defendant who dared to challenge the validity of evidence seized by police. Damiani added a year to his sentence, causing the Supreme Court to note, in reversal: "To punish a person because he has done what the law plainly allows him to do is a due process violation of the most basic sort."

The Sentence Review board, a somewhat dormant group, has modified a number of Damiani's sentences.

Tegeler of the CCLU is too polite.

You won't see a "Fundamental Fairness" shingle hung on the door to Damiani's chambers. He answers to a higher authority than the U.S. or Connecticut Constitutions: his own ego.

For example, he tends to lock his chambers door and call lawyers in to confer with him via a public address system. He fined a lawyer $100 for being late, then threatened to disbar him. He reschedules cases without telling counsel and offers defendants one-shot deals that are offers one cannot refuse, at least in this courtroom. This "Don Corleone" of Connecticut jurisprudence rarely, if ever, finds police testimony "not credible," searches improper or individuals' rights violated by police. "In fact," an attorney said, "I can't think of a single instance when Judge Damiani gave an accused person relief based on police misconduct."

An anti-war protestor who dared to challenge Damiani's bond received a contempt sentence of 30 days. He was freed after serving 12 days when then University of Connecticut legal clinic professor Michael Sheldon, now a judge, brought the case to the Supreme Court.

There are obvious and legitimate privacy issues connected with the proceedings of Juvenile Court and the DCF. All too often, however, the cloak of privacy is used to protect the administrators who abuse the good citizens they are supposed to serve.

Date Received: August 20, 2001 http://www1.law.com/lawcom/displayid.cfm?state=CT&statename=CT&id=78982&table=news&flag=full