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Judges from corporate law backgrounds and former prosecutors are harsher on renters, report finds

People waiting for their cases to be heard in eviction court at New Haven Superior Court on January 12, 2023.
Joe Amon
Connecticut Public
People waiting for their cases to be heard in eviction court at New Haven Superior Court on January 12, 2023.

Lawyer Steve Kennedy has — literally — made it his job to try and nudge our legal system toward working better for regular people. He’s observed that some judges often make that job harder.

“There's been some research looking at how judge’s professional backgrounds impact the way that they rule,” Kennedy said.

Studies have shown in sentencing for criminal cases, and even for employment lawsuits, there is a trend where some judges tend to side against the working class, he said.

“Judges from certain backgrounds will, say, give longer criminal sentences or side more often with corporations and employment cases,” Kennedy said. “Those tend to be people coming from more corporate law backgrounds coming from prosecution backgrounds.”

As Organizing Director at the People's Parity Project, Kennedy and his colleagues decided to see if this observation applied to eviction cases.

According to a research group called The Eviction Lab, monthly evictions in Connecticut have remained above pre-pandemic levels for 20 of the last 22 months. Connecticut Data Collaborative statistics show more than half of all evictions in the state take place in urban centers like Hartford, Bridgeport and Waterbury.

What we found is that people who are coming from the backgrounds that actually are most over represented on our bench — judges with backgrounds in prosecution and in corporate law — were a little bit harsher on renters,” Kennedy said.

The report took a look at the case outcomes of 62 judges over 3,605 cases from January 2018 to December 2023. Judges who ruled for the tenant got a score of "zero." Cases that went to housing court mediation got either a "one" or a "two" score. Judges who ruled for the landlord got a score of "three." The higher the judge's average score, the more likely that judge is to favor the landlord.

The average judge score in this study came out to 2.19. That score indicates the favoritism Kennedy said these judges have for landlords in housing court. The trend has real consequences for Connecticut families, he said.

“Basically we're seeing more people being evicted, we're seeing fewer people getting some of these breaks where maybe you get a little bit extra time to pay back rent, or, or at least, extra time to find new housing,” he said.

“When they appeared before judges who had backgrounds that were actually working with people — so some of your legal aid attorneys, plaintiffs litigation, general practice, those people — renters tend to do a little bit better,” Kennedy said.

Six out of every 10 judges who hear eviction cases come from prosecutorial or corporate backgrounds in Connecticut, according to Kennedy’s estimates. He said it’s not really surprising judges from these backgrounds would tend to favor organizations and industries over individuals.

“If you spend 15 years representing one side of an argument, I think it's natural that ...would inform the way that you approach the law, even as a judge,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy said one issue is fewer people from underrepresented backgrounds are applying for judge positions.

”We need a lot more public defenders, we need a lot more plaintiff’s litigators, people like that to kind of balance things out. So we can make sure that everyone is getting a fair shake in the courts.”

Kennedy said his group, and others, are trying to encourage Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont to appoint more judges from non-corporate and non-prosecutorial backgrounds.

“There are many factors that need to be considered and this was one that the governor needs to think about as he's making his nominations,” Kennedy said. “Because to continue the way that we're going is basically making an active case against renter protections.”

John Henry Smith is Connecticut Public’s host of All Things Considered, its flagship afternoon news program. He's proud to be a part of the team that won a regional Emmy Award for The Vote: A Connecticut Conversation. In his 21st year as a professional broadcaster, he’s covered both news and sports.

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