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Sue yourself? Conn. official does to get on ballot
HARTFORD, Conn. – As Connecticut's secretary of the state, Susan Bysiewicz has spent 11 years explaining and defending election laws to candidates.
But now, as a Democratic candidate for state attorney general, Bysiewicz finds herself in strange territory: as plaintiff in a lawsuit against her own office, challenging the constitutionality of a law she is sworn to uphold.
The stakes are high, since current Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal's often-successful battles against tobacco companies, financial firms and other big adversaries have made the job one of the most prominent of its type nationwide.
And by filing her lawsuit, the solidly popular Democrat and one-time gubernatorial hopeful inadvertently made herself vulnerable to attacks from the Republican Party, which openly covets the attorney general job that it hasn't held in 50 years.
GOP attorneys wasted no time persuading a judge to let the party join Bysiewicz's lawsuit as a defendant. They then forced her to acknowledge in a deposition that she's never tried a case and hasn't been in a courtroom since law school.
"This is really, I think, uncharted territory for us here in Connecticut," said Gary Rose, a political science professor at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield. He said the governorship was "hers to lose" before Bysiewicz switched races to run for the spot that Blumenthal is giving up to run for retiring U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd's seat.
A personal lawyer for Bysiewicz (pronounced BYE'-suh-witts) will argue this week and next that it's unconstitutional to require attorney general candidates to have at least 10 years in active legal practice.
The state constitution says only that people must be at least 18 and registered to vote to run for office, not that they need particular types or lengths of experience, he said. The General Assembly adopted a law several decades ago requiring the 10-years'legal practice.
If the requirement is upheld as constitutional, Bysiewicz's attorney will argue that her 11 years as secretary of the state and six years as a corporate lawyer more than meet the requirement.
Testimony in the case takes place Wednesday and Thursday in Hartford Superior Court, with final arguments scheduled April 20. The judge has said he will rule soon enough to resolve the question before Democrats nominate their candidates in late May.
"Having to go into court to sue and into a deposition to pursue the (attorney general) position, I can't think of another time in my lifetime, certainly, where I've seen anything remotely similar to what's going on here," Rose said.
While the oddity of the case has fascinated political insiders, it could also have broader ramifications.
An unconstitutional finding for the 10-year legal practice requirement could open current and future attorney general races to candidates with a wide range of backgrounds.
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.
Bysiewicz's attorney, Wesley Horton, said Monday he would not comment publicly on the case before presenting it in court.
In addition to the secretary of the state's office, Bysiewicz is also suing the state Democratic Party and its chairwoman to ensure that Bysiewicz is considered for the party's nomination if the ruling is in her favor. She said when announcing the lawsuit that it was necessary to get a judge's ruling before party delegates pick candidates in May.
"I still believe this is a political question best decided by the voters, but lest there be any doubt about the law, I thought it was important just to go forward and get the question answered sooner rather than later," Bysiewicz said at the time.
Horton said in court last week that Bysiewicz, a Duke University School of Law graduate who has been a member of the Connecticut Bar since 1986, has been both qualified and eligible all along to practice law in court, though she chose to do it in other forums.
Her duties as secretary of the state include interpreting and enforcing laws and supervising its staff of attorneys, he said.
The state GOP was allowed to join Bysiewicz's lawsuit as a defendant, saying it has a stake in ensuring both major parties have legitimate candidates on the ballot.
Bysiewicz, 48, who has easily won her secretary of the state races, carried over that popularity into the gubernatorial and attorney general contests as a front-runner in the polls.
Her numbers in Quinnipiac University polls remained high even after she filed the lawsuit, though no similar poll results have come out since a transcript and video of her deposition were widely publicized last week.
In that deposition, she acknowledged under grilling by a GOP lawyer that she has never used the manual of Connecticut court procedures and rules governing attorneys, had never sat at a counsel table and had never been to a deposition or been a witness in a case.
"She's got huge name recognition because of all of her years holding office as secretary of the state, but if this story continues to be in the news, it could begin to hurt her numbers," said Douglas Schwartz, director of the Quinnipiac University poll.
Connecticut isn't the only state in which the technicalities of an attorney general candidate's qualifications have ended up in court.
In California, opponents of Jerry Brown tried unsuccessfully to block him from serving as attorney general because he had not practiced law for five consecutive years before his election in 2006.
A judge tossed out the lawsuit, saying that although he'd let his membership in the California State Bar become inactive for a few of those years, he'd remained eligible to practice law."Watch what people are cynical about, and one can often discover what they lack.” -- Gen. George S. Patton
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