No incumbent in race for probate judge
With the retirement of longtime judge Anthony DePanfilis, the Norwalk-Wilton Probate Court will see a new face at the helm. Both challengers are Norwalk attorneys.
Lawrence “Larry” Cafero, Jr., a Republican, is running on the Republican and Independent lines. Douglas “Doug” Stern is running on the Democratic line.
Connecticut probate courts are responsible for overseeing a broad range of cases, including administering wills and the estates of deceased persons; adoptions, guardianships, and other matters involving children; conservatorships for seniors, persons with mental illness, and adults with intellectual disability; and change of name applications.
The mission of the court, given the sensitive nature of the matters it handles, is to provide an approachable forum for families to resolve their cases in a fair, prompt and economical manner, according to the state probate website.
Candidate Larry Cafero, 60, may be a familiar face to residents of Wilton.
He has practiced law for 35 years, with an office in Norwalk. He has been the due process hearing officer for the Norwalk public schools for 25 years. He also served as a state representative representing Norwalk and Wilton in the 142nd District for 22 years, as House minority during his last eight years there.
Cafero believes the job of probate judge is a good fit for his skills and experience. “As a due process hearing officer in Norwalk schools you are dealing with sensitive matters with students and their families. There are no cookie cutter answers to all their problems and concerns. The probate court is similar in that regard. You are dealing with families when they are sometimes at their worst, and you have to be at your best,” he said.
Cafero is certified in mediation by the American Arbitration Association, which helps parties solve their disputes without going to court. He is also certified in arbitration where he acts like a judge after both sides present their cases.
“Both those skill sets are vital for a probate judge, in order to help resolve differences and also have the wisdom and courage to act as a fair arbiter of the matter,” he said.
He emphasized that a probate judge is non-partial and not political. “Being a probate judge is about impartiality and listening. You put your political hat aside. A probate court experience can be intimidating to the public, and you make the court a user-friendly place. You want to be fair, compassionate and listen,” he said.
Candidate Doug Stern, 36, has a law office in Norwalk where he specializes in criminal defense.
He is a member at large of the Norwalk Common Council, where he serves on the ordinance committee, personnel committee, and health, welfare and public safety committee. He is on the executive board of the Family and Children’s Agency and is a former officer of the Norwalk Branch of NAACP.
Stern has lived in Norwalk for eight years. He grew up in Westport, where his father, Brian Stern, serves as chairman of the Board of Finance. He obtained his law degree from Tulane University in New Orleans — post-Hurricane Katrina, which influenced his outlook on life.
“The hurricane not only left physical damage, it left an impact on everybody. The Ninth Ward, where 100,000 people used to live, — no one lives there now. Spending three years there had an enormous impact on me. I decided to move back where I grew up and to help others. Much of my practice is criminal defense and many of my clients are indigent. I wanted to apply my law degree to help make the world a better place,” he said.
The role of probate judge, he said, fits in with his mission. “It’s an incredible way to help people during moments of their lives. But it needs to be done right and needs to be done well. These are difficult moments. They require someone who is thoughtful and sensitive and will take the time to listen. You need to be patient and direct without being judgmental,” he said.
He also stressed that the probate judge needs to make decisions in a timely fashion. “Actions need to be acted upon in a judicious amount of time. It’s a diverse constituency, Norwalk and Wilton, affluent and those less privileged. Being sensitive to personal circumstances is of the utmost concern to me. I will explain the law in a slow and careful way to people of all backgrounds. At the end of the day, the position is apolitical — a good head sitting upon a big heart,” he said.