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Legislators Consider Changing Attorney General Qualifications

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By STEPHANIE REITZ=, Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Connecticut lawmakers are considering changes to the qualifications needed to run for attorney general after a dispute last year ended up before the state Supreme Court and cost one candidate her campaign.

The legislature’s judiciary committee plans a public hearing Friday on a proposal that would rewrite state law to require candidates to have at least 10 years of Connecticut Bar Association membership before becoming attorney general.

The proposal would also eliminate a phrase calling for “active practice at the bar,” which Supreme Court justices interpreted as a reference to courtroom litigation.

The 2010 ruling knocked Democratic candidate and Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz out of the race for attorney general because despite her background as a corporate lawyer, she lacked litigation experience.

The Connecticut Bar Association and lawmakers calling for the change say the high court’s interpretation did not only apply to Bysiewicz. They say it also disqualifies scores of lawyers whose experience might be a good fit for attorney general, but whose legal practice has been primarily in the boardroom, not the courtroom.

“We have some very talented corporate attorneys in Connecticut who are highly respected in their field, but who would not be able to run for attorney general under the way it’s interpreted now,” said state Rep. Gerald Fox, a Stamford Democrat and co-chairman of the judiciary committee.

Connecticut is among 43 states in which the attorney general is elected. In most, a certain threshold of legal knowledge and experience is required by state law or constitution.

Last year’s dispute occurred after Bysiewicz’s opponents questioned her qualifications and, believing she fit the criteria in state law, she sued the Secretary of the State’s Office for a ruling.

The state’s Republican Party joined the lawsuit as a defendant, then forced her to acknowledge in a deposition that she had never tried a case and had not been in a courtroom since law school. A lower court ruled that Bysiewicz met the requirement to run, but the state GOP appealed. The Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s ruling and she was disqualified.

Democrat George Jepsen went on to win the attorney general job in a race against Republican Martha Dean last fall. Bysiewicz finished her term as secretary of the state, joined a prominent Connecticut law firm and is now running for the U.S. Senate seat held by retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman.
Asked her opinion on the proposal to change the law’s language, Bysiewicz said in a written statement Tuesday that democracy depends on trusting voters to choose their public servants.

“As a matter of public policy, our state should be encouraging the broadest group of people to seek public office,” she said.

Connecticut Republican Party Chairman Christopher Healy said he also supports the idea of clarifying the language in state law to avoid future problems like last year’s court action.

“If you’re going to have someone run for that office, they should have some practical experience and grasp of law, whether it’s criminal or civil, and it should incorporate at least some level of expertise,” Healy said.

“Our argument with Susan Bysiewicz was that under any reasonable measurement, she had not demonstrated anything other than that she had passed the bar and she attended law school. Those are accomplishments, nobody is denying that, but going from there to being the state’s top civil attorney is a bigger leap,” he said.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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