Shays v. Local Grievance Committee

Decision Date05 November 1985
Docket NumberNo. 12712,12712
Citation197 Conn. 566,499 A.2d 1158
PartiesChristopher SHAYS v. LOCAL GRIEVANCE COMMITTEE et al.
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court

Clarine N. Riddle, Hartford, Counsel to the Atty. Gen., with whom were Arnold B. Feigin and Richard F. Kehoe, Asst. Attys. Gen., and, on brief, Joseph I. Lieberman, Atty. Gen., for plaintiff.

Ira B. Grudberg, New Haven, with whom was Alice S. Miskimin, Stamford, for defendant.


PETERS, Chief Justice.

While this opinion is handed down under the name of the chief justice, it is the result of callaboration on the part of all the members of the court to an unusual degree. See State v. Avcollie, 174 Conn. 100, 101, 384 A.2d 315 (1977); State v. Hayes, 127 Conn. 543, 549, 18 A.2d 895 (1941). The underlying issue in this case is whether article third, § 15, of the Connecticut constitution precludes a court from imprisoning a legislator for contempt while the legislature is in session. Before that question can be reached, however, we must decide whether the present proceedings have become moot.

The writ of error brought to this court by the plaintiff, Christopher Shays, arose out of grievance proceedings that were being conducted on March 4, 1985, before the Superior Court, N. O'Neill, J., in the case of Grievance Committee Hartford-New Britain Judicial District v. Alexander A. Goldfarb, Docket No. CV-84-0295671S. 1 The plaintiff had previously filed a complaint with the grievance committee concerning certain alleged actions by Alexander Goldfarb and sought an opportunity to make a statement on the witness stand concerning alleged dereliction of duty on the part of the grievance committee in that committee's pursuit of his complaint. Counsel for Goldfarb objected to the plaintiff's request to make such a statement, and the trial court, N. O'Neill, J., sustained the objection despite an earlier indication by the court, Stoughton, J., to the plaintiff that a statement would be permitted. 2 When the plaintiff persisted in his effort to make a statement in the face of Judge O'Neill's adverse ruling and then refused to obey the trial court's direct order to step down from the witness stand, he was held in contempt of court. Acting pursuant to General Statutes § 51-33, 3 Judge O'Neill sentenced the plaintiff to ten days imprisonment. After the plaintiff had commenced the service of his sentence, he asked the trial court, Stoughton, J., on March 12, 1985, to issue the presently pending writ of error, alleging that his sentence for contempt violated article third, § 15, of the Connecticut constitution. Upon the issuance of the writ by Judge Stoughton and pending its resolution, the plaintiff was immediately released. At all times relevant to the contempt proceedings the plaintiff was a state representative from Stamford, and the General Assembly was then in session. When the legislative session had been adjourned, the plaintiff himself on June 10, 1985, filed with the trial court, Stoughton, J., a motion to vacate his release. Upon the granting of this motion, the plaintiff served the remaining portion of the contempt sentence that had been imposed in March by Judge O'Neill.

The plaintiff's writ of error raises, as its major issue, the question of the proper construction of that portion of the Connecticut constitution which provides: "The senators and representatives shall, in all cases of civil process, be privileged from arrest, during any session of the general assembly, and for four days before the commencement and after the termination of any session thereof." Conn. Const., art. III § 15. The crucial question of construction in this case is a determination of what scope is afforded by the constitution to a legislative privilege limited to "cases of civil process." In particular, we are asked to decide whether the legislative privilege was applicable to the plaintiff's imprisonment upon his contumacious refusal to obey Judge O'Neill's order to leave the witness stand. The plaintiff has advanced three theories in support of his argument that his is a case of "civil process" within article third, § 15: (1) the sanction imposed was for civil rather than for criminal contempt; (2) even if the sanction was for criminal contempt, because the underlying case was a civil action, the contempt for constitutional purposes is a civil case; or (3) even if the sanction was for criminal contempt, criminal contempt is not a violation of the criminal laws, and the contempt for constitutional purposes is therefore a civil case.

The defendant's answer to the writ of error disputes the plaintiff's characterization of his contempt citation and the plaintiff's construction of article third, § 15. In addition, the defendant raises two further issues relevant to the proper disposition of this case. Reminding us that the plaintiff never invoked the legislative privilege in the proceedings before Judge O'Neill, the defendant urges us to find that the privilege was effectively waived. Notably, once the plaintiff determined that he would rely upon the privilege, and so informed the trial court by his writ of error, he immediately received the deferment from imprisonment to which he claims to have been constitutionally entitled. Furthermore, recalling that the plaintiff completed the service of his sentence upon the termination of the legislative session, the defendant urges us to conclude that there is no further relief that we can afford to this plaintiff and that his case has therefore become moot.

In our pursuit of these various inquiries, it is important to be clear about the narrowness of the present proceedings, both as a matter of law generally and as a matter of the particular pleadings presently before us. As a matter of law generally, review pursuant to a writ of error is limited to matters appearing as of record. Naunchek v. Naunchek, 191 Conn. 110, 113, 463 A.2d 603 (1983); McClain v. Robinson, 189 Conn. 663, 668, 457 A.2d 1072 (1983); State v. Assuntino, 180 Conn. 345, 347, 429 A.2d 900 (1980). With respect to the present pleadings, the plaintiff has in his brief limited his claim of impropriety to his alleged legislative privilege, having expressly abandoned the alternate claim of lack of due process raised initially in his writ of error. Moreover, in oral argument before this court, counsel for the plaintiff expressly acknowledged that the plaintiff's conduct constituted contempt and that the trial court was authorized to impose a sanction upon the plaintiff for his contumacious conduct. The only reason this case is here, in light of these concessions, is the plaintiff's argument that, as a matter of timing, Judge O'Neill's imposition of sanctions violated the plaintiff's legislative privilege under the Connecticut constitution. Judge O'Neill, it is claimed, might constitutionally have sentenced the plaintiff to ten days imprisonment to commence five days after the conclusion of the 1985 session of the General Assembly, but he was constitutionally precluded from implementing a sanction of imprisonment until that time.

It is also important to note the factual posture within which these limited questions of law are presented to us. The plaintiff has served in its entirety the sentence whose legality he disputes. Indeed, he undoubtedly elected to complete in June the service of his sentence because, even were his interpretation of article third, § 15, to be correct, his legislative privilege to defer his sentence would have expired upon the termination of the legislative session. If this court were to rule in the plaintiff's favor, there is no way in which we could restore to the plaintiff any of the time that he has spent incarcerated. We have been able to discern no practical relief that we could afford to the plaintiff, and the plaintiff has himself conceded that he will not be directly affected by any ruling that we may make on his claim of legislative privilege.

On this state of the record, before proceeding to the merits of the scope of the plaintiff's legislative privilege, we must first determine whether we lack jurisdiction to hear this case on the ground of mootness. "It is a well-settled general rule that the existence of an actual controversy is an essential requisite to appellate jurisdiction; it is not the province of appellate courts to decide moot questions, disconnected from the granting of actual relief or from the determination of which no practical relief can follow." Reynolds v. Vroom, 130 Conn. 512, 515, 36 A.2d 22 (1944); McCallum v. Inland Wetlands Commission, 196 Conn. 218, 225, 492 A.2d 508 (1985); Accurate Forging Corporation v. UAW Local No. 1017, 189 Conn. 24, 26, 453 A.2d 769 (1983); State Farm Life & Accident Assurance Co. v. Jackson, 188 Conn. 152, 156, 448 A.2d 832 (1982); CEUI v. CSEA, 183 Conn. 235, 246, 439 A.2d 321 (1981). "In the absence of an actual and existing controversy for us to adjudicate in any sense of the term, the courts of this state may not be used as a vehicle to obtain judicial opinions upon points of law; Reply of the Judges, 33 Conn. 586 [1867]; and where the question presented is purely academic, we must refuse to entertain the appeal. Young v. Tynan, 148 Conn. 456, 459, 172 A.2d 190 [1961]." Connecticut Foundry Co. v. International Ladies Garment Workers Union, 177 Conn. 17, 19, 411 A.2d 1 (1979).


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