Don Pesci: Let us now praise a great judge in Hartford



Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a book written by James Agee containing photographs by Walker Evans. In 1936, they traveled to Alabama to report on three tenant-farming families. Their original story, only recently unearthed, never ran, but Agee continued to work on the project, and in 1941 Agee and Evans published their book, now itself famous as a literary work of art. Poverty and struggle had found a voice.

The title of the book was taken from Ecclesiastics: “Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us. The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power from the beginning. Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms, men renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding, and declaring prophecies: Leaders of the people by their counsels, and by their knowledge of learning meet for the people, wise and eloquent are their instructions.”

Agee had turned the passage on its head. The book he and Evans produced was not about rulers; its subject was the subjects of rulers, the poor of Alabama, the forgotten of the earth, who were in a different sense noble, their pain suppurating through their poverty like the waters of a spring: “The spring is not cowled so deeply under the hill that the water is brilliant and nervy, seeming to break in the mouth like crystals, as spring water can: it is about the temper of faucet water, and tastes slack and faintly sad, as if just short of stale. It is not quite tepid, however, and it does not seem to taste of sweat and sickness, as the water does which the Woods family have to use.”

Judge Raymond Norko, who retired from the bench on March 10, is the opposite of pontifical, as anyone who knows him will testify, and he is slightly uncomfortable in the presence of praise. Yet, for the people in his courtroom who bade him farewell when he left his post as the presiding judge of the Hartford Community Court, Norko is the wise counselor of Ecclesiastics. Wisdom knows that the rich spring of justice, tempered always as it must be by mercy, lies within the heart of the just judge. One acquires wisdom though understanding, and understanding through modesty; one must stoop to enter the door of wisdom that lies always above us. This is the true meaning of understanding.

In a brief farewell message, Norko wrote, “I am writing to let you know that, after thirty-three years on the bench, I am retiring on March 10. It has been my honor to serve the people of Connecticut, in particular the people of Hartford, as a Judge of the Superior Court. Since 1985, I have served on cases ranging from motor vehicle to capital felonies; I’ve seen the very best and the very worst of human nature from my place on the bench. It has been an exciting journey, one that I have learned a great deal from. I am perhaps most proud of my service during the development and continued success of the Hartford Community Court. When I was first asked to lead the development of the Hartford Community Court in 1997, I said no. It was a radical concept, with only two other community courts in the nation at that time, and I wasn’t sure it would work. After thinking about it for a short time, and seeing the commitment of the community, the Judicial Branch and our other partners, I felt that we could make a big difference in our city and our courts, and decided to accept the challenge. Happily, it has been an extremely rewarding experience and, over 18 years since opening, the Hartford Community Court remains vital.”

During a farewell party in the Hartford Community Court building, dozens of people stepped forward to commend Norko, who had shaped the court from its inception.  The crowd was an assembly of pilgrims marching toward Canterbury, each bearing a singular tale.

One woman told the famous story of the ice cream truck, an account of which appeared in People Magazine. The ice cream truck was the terror of the neighborhood – loud, insistent, rude, its message and bells tearing the peace of the community. She brought the matter to Norko’s attention. We need a judge who is for us, the woman pleaded.  The court intervened and convinced the driver to lower his decibels and reduce the repetitive message to, say, one message per block. Almost two decades later, the lady still marveled that Norko had intervened, quickly and decisively. Sometimes justice marches on cat paws to its appointed destination.

The judge who will preside over the Hartford Community Court now that Norko has resigned, the Honorable Tammy Geathers, told her own story. She first met Norko under stressful circumstances. As a relatively new public defender, a wheelbarrow full of cases was dumped on her desk. She found herself summoned to court to argue a case she thought had been postponed.  Silently stewing over the mix up, she was a little abashed and astonished to find that Norko was that day presiding over the case. “Are you prepared to argue this case?” he asked. She briefly explained why she was not prepared. “This case will be postponed,” Norko said, “until you have been given a chance to prepare for it.” Much later in her career, she was asked during an interview to name someone she might wish to emulate as a judge. Instantly she responded – Judge Raymond Norko. Sometimes fate is kind; that is exactly what happened.

The court under Norko’s hand has been very busy. “Since 1998,” Norko wrote in his farewell message, “we have handled more than 154,000 arraignments, more than 568,000 hours of community service has been performed (at a value of $4,389,035 based on minimum wage at the time the work was performed) and tens of thousands of social service referrals have been made.”  In addition, the court has had a very long reach: “I am also proud that the Hartford Community Court has become an international model for other communities looking to develop their own community courts. In 2009 and 2014, the US Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Center for Court Innovation selected Hartford as one of four recognized mentor courts. We have hosted visitors from throughout the United States, and we have had visitors from across the globe including Australia, China, Ukraine, France, Japan, Peru, Russia, Cape Verde, Columbia, Sweden, India and the Slovak Republic amongst many more.”

The principal lesson drawn from both Ecclesiastics and the Walker-Evans book is this: Justice seen from the outside and justice experienced from the inside are different. Wisdom and true justice lies in the reconciliation of these differences. The dozens of people who bade farewell to the architect of the Hartford Community Court, all offering their own stories, have good reason to hope that true justice will prevail in a court constructed by so wise a counselor.

Don Pesci, a frequent contributor to New England Diary, is a Vernon, Conn.-based columnist.