Skakel judge's record shows empathy for children
By J.A. Johnson Jr. - Greenwich Time

The jurist at the center of Greenwich's most celebrated murder case has shown extraordinary compassion for youths who have been thrust into the legal system, according to her public record and those who know her.

But if Juvenile Matters Judge Maureen Dennis remains true to form, she will rely solely on the law when deciding whether to open up her courtroom for the Martha Moxley murder defendant's highly anticipated arraignment.

"She's not going to make a snap judgment," Danbury Judicial District Public Defender Robert Field said of the woman he once supervised. "She's not going to serve anyone's political end. She's going to do the right thing as she sees it."

Daniel Weiner, a Stamford attorney who specializes in representing juvenile criminal defendants, said Dennis "is an excellent jurist" who has "always ruled in a fair way, even when she's ruled against me."

Although defendant Michael Skakel is 39, he is to be arraigned in juvenile court because he was 15 when he allegedly murdered Moxley on Oct. 30, 1975.

The arraignment was postponed from earlier this month until March 14 so Dennis can decide on a motion filed by Greenwich Time, The (Stamford) Advocate and three other newspapers asking to be allowed into the normally closed juvenile court proceeding. The case has attracted national media attention because Skakel is a nephew of the late U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy.

Dennis, who lives in Old Saybrook, was born in Boston in 1952 but has lived in Connecticut most of her life. She graduated in 1974 from the University of Connecticut with a degree in French and earned her law degree in 1979 at the University of Connecticut School of Law.

From November 1980 until August 1983, she worked under Field while serving in Danbury first as deputy assistant public defender and then as assistant public defender in the Danbury and Stamford-Norwalk judicial districts.

Dennis went into private practice in December 1983, joining the Greenwich law firm of Whitman & Ransom. During her decade with the firm, she developed a specialty in family law, handling mostly divorce cases.

"I was very sad when she left because you only have so many dedicated people out there," Field said.

Dennis left the Greenwich firm in December 1993 to work for Sandak, Friedman, Somer, MacMillan & Lucas in Stamford, where she impressed managing partner Jay Sandak as "a very competent, thorough attorney" who "is willing to listen to all sides."

Dennis' career at the Stamford law firm was cut short with her appointment as a Superior Court judge by then-Gov. Lowell Weicker in September 1994. She had a brief stint presiding over criminal matters in New Haven, Norwalk and Danbury, but it was in Danbury where she first began wrestling with issues affecting children when presiding over divorce cases as a Family Matters judge.

A cursory review of the more than 20 divorce cases she heard in Danbury shows that Dennis took an interest in the welfare of the children of broken marriages.

In one bitterly contested custody battle, Dennis decreed a divorced couple should have joint custody of their children because the mother and father "love their children and share a concern to provide the best possible environment for them."

Even in divorce cases in which Dennis did not have to decide the fate of young children, the judge, who is a mother herself, usually added a personal touch to her rulings that indicated compassion.

"The personal history of this marriage is sadder than most," Dennis prefaced her decision that granted a 1995 divorce to high school sweethearts who parted ways because of the ex-husband's frequent philandering.

In another 1995 divorce case that was devoid of the "animosity which usually surfaces" in such matters, Dennis observed the estranged husband and wife were "extraordinarily decent individuals."

Judges do not always make their personal feelings part of the official court record, but doing so for Dennis would be in keeping with her character, according to Field.

"She's a sensitive, caring and concerned person who everybody feels comfortable being around," he said.

Only two of Dennis' divorce cases were appealed. The state Appellate Court refused to review one of those cases - in which an ex-husband claimed Dennis improperly excluded evidence - because the appellant failed to supply the higher court with a copy of Dennis' decision.

The other case, in which an ex-husband claimed Dennis improperly found him at fault for his marriage's breakdown when ordering him to pay alimony - was upheld on appeal.

Since juvenile court proceedings are held in secret, Dennis' handling of such matters can only be glimpsed because just one of her cases made its way to the Appellate Court and, as a result, became the subject of a published appellate decision.

In that case, "In Re Brandon W.," a mother who lost custody of her two young children due to alleged neglect and sexual abuse claimed Dennis had erred by, among other reasons, not allowing her to confront her children on the witness stand.

The Appellate Court upheld Dennis' decision to grant custody of the children to the Commission of Children and Families. The appeals court justices found that Dennis had acted within her authority in not allowing the children to be called as witnesses because she had based her decision on a social worker's testimony that doing so would traumatize the children.

Dennis properly took the children away from their mother, the Appellate Court ruled, because she "found that the children were in immediate physical danger from their surroundings and that immediate removal from such surroundings was necessary to ensure their safety."

What Dennis is considering in the Skakel case is unlike anything she or any other Connecticut judge has seen. The newspapers argued before Dennis on Feb. 8 that they should be allowed to be present for the arraignment because Skakel is now an adult and not in need of protection by juvenile court secrecy rules.

But instead of ruling from the bench, Dennis declared the motion involved a "case of first impression" - meaning there is no precedent in Connecticut for such a request - and announced she needed time for a careful review. As a result, Skakel's arraignment, which was to have taken place later that day, was postponed to March 14, by which time Dennis will have issued a written decision on the motion.

Each state has secrecy laws for its juvenile court system because the primary goal of the system is to rehabilitate, rather than punish, youthful offenders. That is why her ruling is sure to be scrutinized by attorneys, judges and legal scholars.

Skakel's arrest on Jan. 19 resulted from an 18-month investigation by a one-judge grand jury in Bridgeport. Now a resident of Florida, Skakel in 1975 lived across the street from Moxley, and was one of several youths who were with the victim the evening she was killed. The murder weapon has been identified by authorities as a 6-iron belonging to a set of golf clubs owned by the Skakel family.

The grand juror for the Moxley matter was Superior Court Judge George Thim, a former assistant public defender who had worked alongside Dennis in Danbury. It was also while with the public defender's Danbury office that Dennis met another colleague, Raymond Kelly, whom the future judge married. Kelly is now in private practice in Fairfield.