Norwalk courthouse closes to cases due to low staffing, more virtual hearings, officials say

Photo of Liz Hardaway
FILE PHOTO: The Norwalk courthouse on Belden Avenue will be repurposed while its cases will continue to be handled in Stamford, according to the state judicial branch. 

FILE PHOTO: The Norwalk courthouse on Belden Avenue will be repurposed while its cases will continue to be handled in Stamford, according to the state judicial branch. 

Erik Trautmann/Hearst Connecticut Media

NORWALK — The Belden Avenue courthouse has remained desolate and absent of cases for more than two years, but the state judicial branch said it has a plan to make the structure useful again.

In a statement, Chief Court Administrator Patrick L. Carroll III said operations at the Stamford-Norwalk Judicial District will continue at the Stamford Courthouse on Hoyt Street. The judicial branch closed the two courthouses in March 2020, but Stamford reopened six months later and all of the Stamford-Norwalk Judicial District's cases have been handled there since. 

Meanwhile, the Norwalk courthouse on Belden Avenue has been "lying vacant and unused," Carroll said. 

But the Judicial Branch is not closing the courthouse, Carroll said. 

"The Norwalk building will continue to be used for important judicial functions," he added. 

In the next few weeks, the Office of Adult Probation will move to the courthouse while courtroom and lockup areas will be used for training purposes, according to Carroll. The space could also be used for community outreach, including civics education initiatives with local schools and mock trial competitions. 

The judicial branch is also considering placing one of its contracted behavioral health providers on-site, he said. 

"Moving forward, we are pleased that a reconfigured Norwalk courthouse will remain a vital part of the community," Carroll said.  

Part of the decision stems from a lack of staffing, particularly judicial marshals, due to attrition and retirements, according to Judicial Branch spokesperson Rhonda Stearley-Hebert. The Stamford/Norwalk Judicial District ideally would have 49 judicial marshals, but as of mid-September, only had 34. 

Carroll also attributed the decision to eliminating in-person infractions dockets, caseload reductions and the move to hold small claims cases and other matters virtually. 

"All of these considerations and our increasing reliance on remote technology make it impossible for the Branch to return to anything similar to pre-pandemic operations in the Norwalk courthouse," he said. 

When the pandemic temporarily closed all of the state's courthouses, thousands of cases were suspended, adding to an already heavy backlog. But Stearley-Hebert said there is always an inventory of cases and, as of last week, the number of pending cases was below pre-pandemic levels. 

In January 2019, there were 61,684 active pending criminal and motor vehicle cases statewide. These do not include cases involving rearrests, individuals participating in diversionary programs and other certain cases. 

As of Sept. 20, the number of these cases was at 61,007. 

"Pending cases have been addressed through a mix of in-person proceedings and remote technology," Stearley-Hebert said in an email. 

Now, the Stamford courthouse will have to handle cases for the entire Stamford-Norwalk Judicial District, which includes Darien, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, Weston, Westport and Wilton. 

In order to make the Hoyt Street building more streamlined, all cases will be integrated into a single docket over the next few weeks. Clerk's office personnel will also be able to handle all of the cases, according to Carroll. 

Since March 2020, Norwalk cases were handled in the Stamford courthouse only on Wednesdays and Fridays while Stamford cases were handled on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. During this time, the Stamford and Norwalk clerk's offices worked separately — each office could only handle its own cases — and this has "proven to be slow and inefficient," Carroll said. 

"Implementation of these changes will enhance the processing of court business," Carroll said. "It will also make greater and more efficient use of the reduced number of court staff, particularly security staff, assigned to the Stamford/Norwalk district."