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State courts in CT and across America are reshaping rights. A new website seeks to show how

The Connecticut State Supreme Court. August, 2021.
Dave Wurtzel
Connecticut Public
The Connecticut State Supreme Court in August 2021.

Federal rulings limiting or eliminating Americans' rights under the U.S. Constitution have brought increased attention to the role state constitutions can play in protecting rights. In response, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law recently launched the State Court Report,dedicated to covering state constitutional cases and trends in high courts across all 50 states.

“ State courts are so much more important than maybe folks have realized in the past,” said Douglas Keith, senior counsel in the Brennan Center's judiciary program and founding editor of State Court Report.

Users can search the site by state, topic, or anything they're interested in.

“State Court Report is a forum dedicated to covering legal news, trends, scholarship,” Keith said. “You will first see the latest news about major state constitutional decisions from courts across the country.”

On the moment to revisit the importance of state courts and constitutions

“For so long, the U.S. Supreme Court has been treated as sort of the final word on major legal questions in this country,” Keith said. “That understanding is changing. The U.S. Supreme Court, particularly decisions in the last few years, have made clear that that court is stepping back from protecting rights.”

He pointed to the high court's recent decision on abortion access, which Connecticut has protected at a state level.

“There are certain claims that that court just doesn't want to hear, like claims about whether new legislative districts in the state are partisan gerrymanders,” Keith said.

State courts increasingly have more power over how voting districts are drawn, he said.

“State courts are actually going to be the ones that are deciding some of these key cases," he said, "and state courts are going to be the ones deciding many of the rights that people have today.”

Constitutional issues to watch in Connecticut: from gunmaker liability to bail reform

Some states may be looking at the Connecticut Constitution in the context of gunmaker lawsuits.

“That's a really good example of something that's happening in Connecticut, and a decision that could actually have really a national impact,” Keith said of the state Supreme Court’s decision to allow some families of victims killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting to agree to a $73 million settlement against Remington, the company that made the weapon used in the attack.

In previous cases, U.S. gunmakers have managed to invoke immunity and avoid liability. But in Connecticut, the state Supreme Court ruled that the plaintiffs could sue Remington in state court under the state’s law against unfair trade practices.

“This area of loss or liability for various reasons, not just the gun manufacturers, but for any number of reasons, is sort of one of the more important areas of state constitutional law,” Keith said. “It doesn't get the headlines that a fight over abortion rights or voting rights might get. But this is something that impacts a large number of people in their daily lives.”

State courts across the country just this year have decided a number of cases about who can be liable, he said, and when someone who's been affected by a harm like this can sue.

Another area that the Connecticut Supreme Court has been really active in, Keith said, is the rights of defendants in criminal cases.

“The Connecticut Supreme Court has been very clear that the state constitution actually protects against unreasonable searches and seizures to a greater extent than the federal constitution does,” Keith said.

He cited a recent decision by the state’s highest court that he said clarifies this.

“They said, federal law is not a lid on protections guaranteed under the state constitution. As we like to say, the federal law and the federal constitution is a floor. But state constitutions can build on top of that floor. And the Connecticut Supreme Court clearly understands that,” he said. “They've decided cases about searches and seizures and bail, and what information can be considered in sentencing and whether virtual hearings provide the same rights as in person hearings.”

On increasing access and affordability of court dockets

The state court dockets, where all these documents live, are often very hard to access, Keith said, or very expensive to access.

“We are trying to do the job right now of collecting all those materials, and making them publicly available on our website so that folks don't have to worry about figuring out how to navigate those dockets,” he said.

Keith’s organization hopes to eventually work with state courts to help them democratize access to the information.

“It is essential that the public be able to access information about what's actually happening in these courts, and better understand these institutions that are becoming just so central to our democracy,” he said.

Lori Connecticut Public's Morning Edition host.

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