SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Retired Judge Lloyd Connelly was met with a standing ovation by the judges and staff of Sacramento County Superior Court, after the bench voted unanimously last week to appoint him as the court’s new executive officer.
“We have judges who attend those meetings by video and it was interesting to me to see judges in remote locations on their feet to honor the appointment of Judge Connelly as CEO,” Presiding Judge Kevin Culhane said in an interview Tuesday.
Connelly began his long and colorful career in the Sacramento City Council before being elected to the state Assembly in 1982, where he sponsored bills to protect consumers from insurance rate hikes and prohibit gun ownership by people with a history of mental illness and past convictions of misdemeanor gun offenses.
He was also chair of the Assembly Sub-Committee on the Administration of Justice and co-chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee.
In 1993, Connelly was elected to the bench of the Sacramento Superior Court where he worked as a trial judge for 20 years, taking on a demanding criminal calendar.
“He handled some of the most serious criminal cases one could handle,” Culhane said.
Some of those cases included John Anthony Bertsch and Jeffrey Lee Hronis, who Connelly sentenced to death in 2000 for the 1985 kidnapping, rape and murder of 35 year-old Linda Ann Canaday, and Dundell Wright, who shot and killed Sacramento Police Department officer Bill Bean Jr. in 1999.
Connelly later took over the complex civil litigation and writ calendars, where he oversaw a massive deal between Imperial Valley farmers to sell water to the cities of San Diego County, hailed as the largest water sale between cities and farms in the United States.
“He has always been one of those deans of the court, in the sense that younger and less senior judges sought out his counsel and he served as a mentor for other judges as they undertook their judicial careers,” Culhane said.
In 2012, Connelly found himself at the center of controversy while presiding over a legal battle between former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the family of Luis Santos, slain by the son his political ally Fabian Nunez. Schwarzenegger commuted Nunez’s son Esteban Nunez’s sentence just hours before leaving office in 2011.
Connelly ruled that Schwarzenegger did not abuse his executive power by commuting the manslaughter sentence from 16 years to seven, but he wasn’t too happy about it either – calling the governor’s decision was “repugnant to the bulk of the citizenry of this state.”
He added the law preventing abuse of the governor’s power in such matters applied only to pardons, not commutations, two actions that Connelly said were “as different as a horse and an elephant.”
Connelly retired from the bench in 2012, but after a few years signed up to become a member of the court’s assigned judges program. His new assignment took him to the Carol Miller Justice Center, almost an hour away from Sacramento’s main courthouse, where he presided over traffic, small claims and unlawful detainer proceedings. Connelly supported California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye’s initiative to allow drivers to fight their traffic tickets in court without having to pay the fine first.
“You have a good case. You have a good argument. You ought to have the right to make that argument,” Connelly told a local Sacramento NBC affiliate in 2015. “You shouldn’t have to pay first to have a judge hear that argument.”
In March 2017, Sacramento’s former court executive officer Tim Ainsworth retired. Abruptly, Culhane found he needed to find someone to act as head clerk while the court looked for a permanent replacement.
“I approached Judge Connelly and asked him if he would act as CEO during the period of recruitment,” Culhane said. He has an affection and affinity for the court. These are folks who had been his colleagues.”
In the intervening four months, the Sacramento judges watched Connelly thrive as he brought his past judicial and legislative expertise to the job of streamlining and modernizing the court’s operations. This included learning to work with the Judicial Council’s new caseload-based formula for funding and working with the sheriff and poverty agencies to address the homeless encampment outside the courthouse – a problem that continues to bedevil other courts including Orange County Superior Court.
Though the court received applications from all over the country, the choice seemed obvious to the court’s judges.
“Ultimately when the recruitment committee sat down to make our recommendation it was unanimous to our bench that Judge Connelly was the perfect person,” Culhane said.
As Connelly makes the transition from interim to permanent head clerk, he’ll face a number of challenges including reconfiguring the court’s family law calendar, processing complex civil cases, making sure the court’s caseload numbers are accurate and identifying a funding source for the new Sacramento courthouse, which Culhane said he hopes will soon begin construction.
“It’s very complex and in exactly the right hands,” Culhane said. “The thing about Judge Connelly is that he’s got two characteristics that I’ve observed. He’s a person of unquestioned integrity. He’s well known in the judicial branch generally for excellent legal work on very complex cases, but he’s also got this integrity and character. He’s also very detail-oriented. His brain and his inquisitive nature don’t stop. So I’m certain and our bench is certain we made the right the decision here.”