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Holding Court: Judge Susan Handy has cultivated a reputation for being fair, firm and unflappable

Published 02/20/2013 12:00 AM

Judge Susan B. Handy tells it like she sees it from the bench in New London Superior Court.

She deals with complex legal issues, but Handy, in her second decade as a state judge, says that much of what she does is based on common sense and life experience.

On the bench, she pushes her straight blond hair back with her reading glasses and makes eye contact with men and women who have killed, raped and robbed.

"You, sir, will grow old in jail," she said to a 27-year-old man who had killed two small children. "You, sir, will grow feeble in jail. You, sir, will die in jail. And that is a most-just result for these intolerable and despicable acts."

To those who blame their criminal activity on a difficult childhood, her advice is, essentially, that they should suck it up.

"You have a chip on your shoulder as big as this courtroom," she said to a teen who had set fire to the Jewett City Town Hall. She told him he needed to outgrow his attitude and move on with his life.

Nobody leaves this judge's court wondering where she stands on gun control. Her opening line during sentencing remarks in weapons cases is consistent:

"I hate guns."

She elaborated in the case of a Niantic man who used proceeds from drug-dealing to buy a large assortment of guns.

"I don't care if they're unique or have historical value," she said. "I don't care what type they are. All I know is that somehow, some way, they are going to get in the wrong hands."

~~~

Susan Brodeur Handy, 63, is in her 20th year as a Connecticut Superior Court judge. She is also a newlywed and a grandmother who is mulling the next chapter of her life. During a recent interview in her chambers, Handy, who wears sleek business suits beneath her black robe, sometimes with a string of pearls and always with high heels and painted tonails, was sporting something new on the third finger of her left hand: a wedding ring.

This past Christmas Eve, she married Judge Robert A. Martin, who presides over civil cases in New London Superior Court.

"He is my best friend and my biggest supporter; he also knows how to keep me grounded and not take myself too seriously," Handy said. "We make each other laugh, which with our serious work lives is very important."

Between them, they have four adult children, a son-in-law, a daughter-in-law and a grandchild with another on the way. Handy said the adult children all are successful, and more importantly, "They are really kind and caring people."

She puts as much energy into her personal life as she does her professional life. She bakes a delicious almond poppy bread. She is an expert shopper who looks put-togther even in the grocery store on a weekend afternoon. She takes great joy in giving things to people.

"Christmas at my house is ridiculous," she said.

Handy is devoted to an elderly aunt who lives out of state. And she was never more excited than when she became a grandmother for the first time.

"My job is being a judge," she said. "My life is my family."

Handy grew up in Shrewsbury, Mass., the middle child of Claire Giguere Brodeur and Valmore Brodeur. Her parents were of French-Canadian descent and were members of the Greatest Generation, she said. Neither graduated high school. Her father worked in a factory, and money was tight.

"When the new school year began, we each got one pair of shoes and it lasted you all year," she said. "But I never felt disadvantaged. I knew I was loved unconditionally..."

In the Brodeur household, the parents spoke French when they wanted to discuss something in private. That practice ended when the children began studying the language in school and could understand parts of the conversation.

There was never a question that she and her two brothers would go to college.

"They just expected great things from us because they wanted our lives to be easier than theirs," she said. "I have to give so much credit to them for the way they raised us."

Handy remains close friends with Katherine Doyle, who lived in the same housing development as the Brodeurs. Susan and Kathy met at the bus stop on the first day of first grade, Doyle recalled in a recent phone interview. They were in Brownies together and took tap dancing, Doyle said. Their mothers did not have cars, so their activities were confined to the immediate area.

Handy was an acheiver from a young age, according to Doyle. "We'd be at recess and flirting with the boys, but then she'd go and do the double dutch jumping and Red Rover Come Over, and then she'd go in and get a 100 on a math test," Doyle said. "Who says you can't do all of that? They're not mutually exclusive."

~~~

Handy is thinking about her retirement options, but remains as active as ever on the bench. She has held some of highest administrative positions in the Superior Court system, including a stint as chief administrative judge for criminal matters for the entire state. She has served on committees that create court rules, review allegations of misconduct by judges and attorneys and oversee court personnel and policy.

She hosts groups like the Chamber of Commerce and senior citizens in her courtroom. She reads to schoolchildren and patiently answers their questions.

"Do you know Judge Judy?" a middle school student asked during a recent visit to court. (No, she doesn't, though she did meet WFSB Channel 3's morning TV personality Scot Haney recently while working on a Judicial-Media committee project with his colleague, Eric Parker.)

If Handy acts and sounds like a teacher, it is because she spent eight years at the head of a classroom after putting herself through the University of Massachusetts. She started her career in Barnstable High School in Hyannis, Mass. From 1972 to 1978, she taught English, speech and drama at New London High School.

"Those seven years (at New London High) have been the foundation of any success I've had as a judge," she said.

Handy worked with colleagues who were, like her, "young and passionate and excited," she said. She met students from all different backgrounds.

Anthony "Tony" Basilica, a New London defense attorney who appears often before Handy, was a student in her 12th grade English class.

"She's as good a judge as she was a teacher," he said. "She's enthusiastic, fair, reasonable."

Basilica said Handy cares about young people in particular and bends over backward to try to give them a break.

Bruce A. Sturman, chief public defender in the New London Judicial District, said Handy's teaching background is reflected in her judicial demeanor.

"She runs the room," Sturman said. "She listens, but in the final analysis, she wears the black robe."

It doesn't matter if it's a school bell ringing or a judicial marshal banging the gavel to open court at 10 a.m. — Handy expects people to be on time. Attorneys who appear before her learn quickly to tell their clients to be in their seats before she is on the bench. They also coach their clients to say, "Yes, your honor" rather than "Yeah."

~~~

Handy's transition from education to law occured because she got involved with the union at New London High School. Most of the teachers at the high school — and most who had any pull — were men.

Then Superintendent Rene Racette approached her about running for president of the New London Federation of Teachers, telling her she would be the first female to hold the position. Handy, who was still in her 20s, was elected and found herself negotiating a contract for more than 100 teachers. With the help of local attorney Matthew Shafner, Handy and the union went into arbitration.

When it was over, the mediator, Professor Cornelius Scanlon from the University of Connecticut Law School, asked whether she had ever considered attending law school.

"That's how it started," Handy said.

She began attending the University of Connecticut law school at night, and after a year quit her teaching job to go full time. She received her juris doctorate in 1980 and went to work at the Mystic law firm of Conway, Londregan, Leuba, McNamara and Sussler, where she had interned.

A UConn professor had recommended her to the firm, according to Superior Court Judge Robert C. Leuba, a partner at the time. Handy said she thought she would be practicing education law once she graduated, but found herself doing "whatever they told me to." She became a First Amendment specialist who represented newspapers. She served as a municipal attorney for several local towns. She represented injured people in civil lawsuits.

Leuba said Handy was a natural from the beginning.

"I remember sitting with Susan at her first trial, just to be nearby as an older person," Leuba said. "She didn't need any help. She was very capable."

Leuba said Handy is a respected leader and judge.

"Her most important skill I think is her strong personality. She has opinions about things and she shares them readily."

~~~

Handy said she never thought about being a judge until she was approached by the late Jim Spellman, the Stonington first selectman. Spellman was a member of the Judicial Selection Commission that recommends judge candidates to the governor. His son — Steven Spellman, a state senator — worked with Handy at the law firm.

Jim Spellman asked Handy if she had ever thought about applying.

"I said, 'It's never going to happen. I've been a registered independent all my life," Handy said. "Then as lucky things happen, Governor (Lowell) Weicker, an independent, got elected."

Community leaders she worked with wrote letters of support and made calls on her behalf, including Nicholas Mullane, first selectman of North Stonington.

"I was honored," Mullane said. "She was never politically motivated in regard to any issue we ever brought her. She was a wonderful person. She was a great lawyer."

Weicker nominated Handy and she was confirmed in February 1993.

"I was in the right place at the right time," she said. "They needed women."

Handy was assigned to several courts outside of New London County but eventually came back to New London as the presiding judge of civil cases.

"Next thing I know, (Chief Court Administrator) Aaron Ment, called and said, next term, you're going to become the administrative judge for criminal," she remembered. She had never expected to be a criminal judge.

"It was a big change for me and a big learning curve, and I still work at it every day," Handy said.

~~~

In 2008, the New London County Bar Association presented Handy with its Liberty Bell award for upholding the rule of law. Months earlier, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal had come to Handy's court to ask that she keep serial rapist David Pollitt in prison even though he had completed his prison sentence of more than 24 years. Residents of a Southbury neighborhood were protesting after learning that Pollitt would be living there following his release.

Handy issued a ruling that she knew was unpopular but, she and her colleagues said, was absolutely correct. She said Pollitt had paid his debt to society and was entitled to be released.

Michael L. Regan, chief state's attorney in New London, had also argued that Pollitt should be released.

"She was simply following the law and did not bend from political pressure," Regan said recently. "She wasn't influenced by it at all. It was clear to me and Judge Handy that the Attorney General's motion had no basis."

Handy said she gets as much information as she can about cases and makes the best possible decision. She knows some consider her too lenient and others think she is too harsh. She can't let it bother her, she said, or she wouldn't be able to do her job.

"Much of what we do is a compromise, and nobody is going to be satisfied," she said.

Ever the teacher, Handy insists that defense attorneys do their "homework" on their clients and share the information with her. She takes copious notes and files them in binders for quick reference. From the bench, she takes time to explain the law.

When a case is resolved, often after Handy has overseen months or years of behind-the-scenes negotiations between prosecutors and defense attorneys, Handy includes a personal message in her sentencing remarks.

"You have to change your schtick," she told one defendant recently.

She takes the time to personally address even the "frequent flyers" who return to court repeatedly. She says they're people, and she doesn't want this to be a throwaway society.

"I think it's important that people know that even though I wear a robe and have a job, I'm still a person," she said. "I think it's important they know that I get it."

Handy is considering the next phase of her life, where she hopes to meld her teaching with her judicial experience.

"When I do gear down, I really would like to start an educational program where judges, prosecutors, et cetera go into high schools and talk about the consequences of things," she said. "I think we have an obligation to do something, and I'd like to be a part of that."

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