A recent Courant story on the hiring of state marshals suggests that a little cronyism and political backscratching may be creeping back into a relatively new system for the hiring of marshals — the individuals who serve the legal papers on behalf of lawyers and courts.
At issue is whether more reform would be appropriate for a state that uses independent contractors (marshals) not officers of the court to notify the innocent and the guilty of legal proceedings impacting their lives.
If you get to be a marshal and have cultivated a relationship with one or more law firms, the gig can be down right lucrative. Fees can range from picking a nice $25 or $30K a year to supplement the family budget to seven-figure businesses that rival or exceed the pay of senior vice presidents at insurance companies. There’s a risk side to all of it. A marshal serving an eviction notice or coming to foreclose on a home doesn’t know who’s behind the door when they come knocking. And marshals need to run a business that may entail taking on hired hands to keep the records straight.
These risks and responsibilities, however, are outweighed by the financial rewards. So wouldn’t you be outraged if you “aced” the test only to find the Lt. Governor’s low-scoring pal got the appointment?
This latest flap over appointments should be a cause for concern. But it can hardly compared with the old. In the bad old days of the county sheriffs, appointments were almost exclusively a patronage domain of the political parties.
The high sheriffs with offices in the county courthouses would be elected every four years. Incumbents had the advantage of shaking down the appointed deputies and deputy wannabes. The high sheriff, who picked the high paying assignments for himself, would also control the judicial court sheriffs who would staff the halls of justice without the union protection afforded all state employees. The only thing high sheriffs had to worry about was securing the endorsement and nomination of their parties for re-election. The sheriffs would continually patronize the local party chairmen and elected officials, and provide no small amount of financial support and election help for the party bosses.
This last vestige of county government was finally vanquished in a 2002 referendum. The state Marshal Commission was set up to replace the county sheriffs, toppling them from their courthouse fiefdoms and ending the pure political patronage upon which serving legal papers had been based.
The new commission under Governor Rowland, working with a small budget and few resources to develop better ways to manage the sheriffs (marshals), instituted the current system of merit exams, qualifications, standards and reporting requirements to regulate the state marshal conduct. The legislation mandating a referendum also allowed for the “grandfathering” of incumbent sheriffs to be appointed marshals with commission approval. Many of those who worked in the old sheriff system are still there, among them a top tier making millions of dollars a year. (I recall this having been a member of the marshal commission in its first two years).
The marshal commission itself is still a politically-driven body with its appointees coming from the Governor, who controls the majority, and the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate. Lt. Governor Fedele should hope that he’s covered his tracks in denying he had nothing to do with the appointment of his friend.
The rampant sheriff patronage is gone in 2009 but political favoritism may be making a comeback to influence who gets the badges and the remuneration that goes with them.