As I said before, I am covering Connecticut politics for ConnecticutPlus.com. Yesterday, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled on unanimous decision that Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz does not meet the minimum statutory requirement (Conn. Gen. Stat. § 3-124) of at least ten years of active practice of the law to run for state Attorney General. Here’s a summary of how everything happened:
On January 13, 2010, Secretary Bysiewicz switched races – from Governor to state Attorney General. It happened after Senator Chris Dodd’s announcement that he is not going to seek reelection, as a result of which state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal officially announced that he is running for his seat in the Senate, thus leaving his position up for grabs for the November 2010 election. At the end of January, Susan Bysiewicz asked Richard Blumenthal for an advisory opinion on her qualification to run for the statewide position but two weeks later Attorney General Blumenthal announced that the courts or the state legislature will have the last word in determining whether she is qualified to run for state Attorney General based on the state statute. In his formal opinion, Dick Blumenthal defined the state statute as constitutional and also added that the term active practice ‘requires more than simply being a member of the Connecticut Bar with an active status.’
On March 5, the state Superior Court granted the state Republican Party the motion to intervene in the case – three days after the Connecticut Republican Party joined Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz in her lawsuit seeking clarification about whether she is qualified to run for Attorney General. According to its Chairman, Chris Healy, Susan Bysiewicz is not qualified to run for the statewide office. The Connecticut Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy DiNardo joined on Secretary Bysiewicz’ side. Ms. DiNardo asked a judge to clarify that Ms. Bysiewicz’ years as Secretary of the State qualify as legal practice.
In other words, the case was technically between Susan Bysiewicz and the state Republican Party. At the state Superior Court level, Ms. Bysiewicz won the case. Judge Michael Sheldon ruled that Susan Bysiewicz is qualified to run for state Attorney General based on the state statute. In that decision, Judge Sheldon ruled that the fact that Secretary Bysiewicz never appeared in court since she passed the bar exam did not matter and that what she does as Secretary of the State included “lawyering.” An argument for the latter was that she was coordinating a team of lawyers as Secretary of the State. Secretary Bysiewicz then welcomed the decision as “a victory not just for me but for the voters of Connecticut because they will have the opportunity to decide who, in their judgment, can best serve as Attorney General.”
Who was right…
The state Supreme Court’s unanimous decision on the case – that Secretary Bysiewicz is not eligible to run for state Attorney General – is no different from the public opinion. Forum participants, bloggers, political commentators, politicians, even online poll questions such as the one on Hartford Courant’s website show results that are generally against her claims to be eligible to run for the statewide position.
In her lawsuit, Ms. Bysiewicz included her six years in private practice as an attorney at law firms in New York City and Hartford, her two years as an attorney at Aetna Life & Casualty Insurance Company practicing health care and pension law, her six years in the state House of Representatives (1993-1999) and her eleven years as Secretary of the State of Connecticut. According to Bysiewicz’ lawsuit, her eleven years as Secretary of the State included active practice of the law for the following reasons:
She was Commissioner of Elections as Secretary of the State, and as such she regularly issued opinions, instructions, declaratory rulings regarding election law.
She worked with her staff to draft proposed legislations and regulations connected with her job as Secretary of the State.
She has been a member in good standing of the Connecticut Bar since 1986 and the New York Bar since 1987.
The state statute violates the state Constitution according to which every elector 18 years of age or older shall be eligible for any office in Connecticut, ‘except in cases provided for in this constitution.’
It also violates the state Constitution based on its violation of free speech and political association part.
It also violates the First Amendment rights of the U.S. Constitution.
The main hidden controversy here is whether her eleven years as Secretary of the State constitute active practice of the law, since she falls two years short of satisfying the statutory requirement as private practitioner. Without having read the Connecticut Supreme Court Justices’ decisions on the case, I agree with what Eliot Gersten – the state Republican Party’s attorney in the case – stated against Secretary Bysiewicz: that as Secretary of the State she was just head of a state agency, for her office really is a state agency.
I would add that if her years as Secretary of the State constitute active practice of the law, then it is absolutely enough for a non-lawyer to get elected to her current position – for non-lawyers can run for Secretary of the State – then get reelected twice, and can run for state Attorney General without having ever studied law. This position doesn’t have the word attorney in vain. The person holding the position is the main legal advisor to the government, the lawyer for the government.
Attorneys General protect consumers and the state from unlawful business practices, defend their states and their citizens against criminal acts such as terrorism, and can participate in the same way in other legal disputes that involve the government or the people. If a non-lawyer can be Attorney General in Connecticut (or any other state, not to mention the entire country), then a non-lawyer obviously has to be allowed to become a lawyer, regardless of whether or not they have anything to do with any state’s Bar.
For one thing Susan Bysiewicz may seem right though – the inconsistence between the state statute and the state Constitution’s clause that allows an elector, 18 years of age or older, to be eligible to run for any office in Connecticut, and what she was not allowed to run for on Tuesday was definitely an office in Connecticut. The language of that statute was confusing enough to trip her into thinking that she is eligible for the position. At least what is for sure is that this state Supreme Court ruling will serve as an interpretation of this state statute.