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8 Plus 6 Equal 23

Well, despite the best efforts of New Haven’s criminal defense bar, it looks like GA 8 is going to be merged with GA 6 to add up to a new court, GA 23. Putting aside the confusing arithmetic of the projected merger, all of us who have plied our trade in GA 8 over the years are going to miss it. The familiar highways on which we travel will be without one of the more refreshing oases.

GA 8, in both its present and former configurations, has made many deposits into our collective memory banks. When I started, GA 8 covered West Haven and all the shoreline towns East out to Madison. The Courthouse was located on the second floor of West Haven’s City Hall. There was no friendlier courthouse in the state. The people in the clerk’s office were contortionists of courtesy who would bend over backwards to help. Ray Mazzacane was the chief clerk. He presided from a back room where everyone was welcome. There all of us — judges, lawyers and clerks—shared newspapers, coffee and stories before, during and after court.

The prosecutors, all of them, got it. They instinctively distinguished between and among the citizens, mopes and predators. They knew how to do their job and how to help the lawyers to do their jobs too, all with a minimum of fuss and friction. And, if memory serves, all of them, or nearly all, have gone on to become judges: Ed Mullarkey, Frank Iannotti, Burt Kaplan, Ed Leavitt, Earl Richards. And as good as they were, their staff was better: Virginia, Marianne, Linda, Herbie.

Whether calmed by the gentle breezes off the Savin Rock beaches, the split hot dogs at Jimmies or the proximity of Apps Restaurant, the judges in West Haven always knew how to make a courthouse run smoothly. They understood that, often, like music and fine art, less is more. Judges John Reynolds, C. Perrie Phillips, Frank Kinney, Phil Mancini, Paul Foti, all of them had the right touch.

This really was a people’s court. Pretense was not allowed. You could drive over from New Haven, and, with luck, park in the municipal lot. Then you would walk into the courtroom where Judge Reynolds would announce your arrival to all in attendance: “Ah. I see counsel has come in from the county seat”. Lawyers could watch from worn theater seats as mini-dramas unfolded before them. Many spectators and defendants were regulars. They were known to, understood and, each in their own way, appreciated by all. It was not unusual to see more than one pro se driving-under- suspension defendant obtain a continuance, leave the courtroom, walk across the parking lot and drive off under their own steam. I remember one regular who loved to provoke, just for kicks. When his case was called he would approach the table before the judge’s bench, turn so only the prosecutor could see him, and open his warm-up jacket displaying a KISS ME, I’M ITALIAN t-shirt. The vexed prosecutor would sputter helplessly as the defendant, jacket now closed, faced the judge and politely requested and received a new date.

Then came the change. West Haven’s Mayor didn’t renew the lease. West Haven’s cases went to the new GA 22 in Milford, as did their team of friendly clerks. And GA 8, minus West Haven, moved to the third floor of 121 Elm Street. (Unwilling to acknowledge the revised geography occasioned by the change, we used to joke that you now had to take an elevator to get to West Haven.). But the friendly atmosphere remained. The prosecutors, now Phil Scarpelino, Dave Newman, Kim McCabe and Jeff Doskos, retained the ingenuity that allowed for creative resolutions to vexing disputes. Their staff, Herbie, Linda and Maria and countless interns continued the co-operative spirit of the West Haven courthouse. Judge Joe Clark presided on the third floor for years, daily dispensing justice, stories of the history of New Haven and, where appropriate, gentle reminders about Holy Days of Obligation.

We all waited for the “new” GA 8 to resurface in East Haven. This was not to be. Instead, in the months to come we are all going to move downstairs where New Haven’s, Bethany’s and Woodbridge’s huddled masses yearning to be free will be joined by similarly disposed residents of East Haven and points East.