Connecticut’s Attorney General William Tong is seeking to fulfill his campaign promise to aggressively pursue civil-rights violations by introducing a bill to the Joint Committee on Judiciary that would expand his office’s powers to take action in civil-rights cases.
Not only was the bill, HB 7222, written at the AG’s request, but the office has also hired a new assistant attorney general to deal solely with civil-rights cases.
“This bill originated in the Office of the Attorney General,” said Elizabeth Benton, spokeswoman for the attorney general. “We proposed the concept to the chairs of the Judiciary Committee, who agreed to raise the bill. We submitted draft language and final language was drafted by the Legislative Commissioner’s Office.”
The Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO) currently deals with individual complaints of discrimination in housing, affirmative action, and so forth within the state. With the powers granted by HB 7222, the state could pursue actions against individuals, businesses or groups, just as CHRO does — but with all the legal heft of the Attorney General’s Office behind it.
“Under HB 7222, the Attorney General’s Office will bring complementary tools to proactively investigate and litigate in state and federal court in response to patterns and practices of large-scale civil rights violations,” said Benton.
In the aftermath of last summer’s Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commissionruling by the US Supreme Court — in which the court sided with the baker who refused to create a cake for a gay wedding — Tong promised on the campaign trail to create a civil-rights division at the AG’s office.
The office has even created a new job title, Special Counsel for Civil Rights at Office of the Attorney General, in January.
The role has been filled by Joshua Perry, formerly an attorney with the nonprofit Connecticut Legal Services. However, Benton said that Perry’s official job title is Assistant Attorney General.
HB7222, if made into a law as written, would allow the attorney general to investigate allegations that someone has threatened, intimidated, or coerced somebody else from exercising their civil rights. This would include criminal acts of bias or bigotry, all of which are felonies in Connecticut.
The AG would also be authorized to investigate complaints that a person deprived someone else of their lawful rights or privileges.
What’s more chilling is that the AG could bring a civil suit against the alleged malefactor on behalf of a victim and seek damages up to $10,000 per violation, plus attorney’s fees, investigation and litigation costs, and anything else the court will allow.
Considering that between 94 and 97 percent of felony cases at the state and federal levels end in plea bargainsrather than convictions by trial, under HB 7222 an accused would almost certainly be on the hook financially once the AG brought the action.
If the case went to trial and the accused won, the state wouldn’t have to pay anything.
Instead of bringing a civil action, however, HB 7222 also specifies the AG could accept an assurance from the accused that they will discontinue their bad actions. But if the accused ever violates that assurance, such an act is deemed as proof that he broke the law he was accused of breaking in the first place.
In other words, it essentially flips the burden of proof from the Attorney General’s Office to the accused. If the accused breaks the assurance, then he’s broken the law — even though the alleged lawbreaking has never been proven in court.
The problem with the bill is that it puts the entire matter in the attorney general’s discretion to bring the full weight of the state into private suits.Scott Shepard, former law professor and director of policy and research for the Yankee Institute
“The problem with the bill is that it puts the entire matter in the attorney general’s discretion to bring the full weight of the state into private suits,” said Scott Shepard, former law professor and director of policy and research for the Yankee Institute.
“This deputizes the attorney general to become the practical attorney for parties in what, but for this law, would be private-versus-private party civil suits,” said Shepard.
Shepard added that there’s no objective criteria mentioned in the bill for which cases the AG’s office would take on and which it would ignore.
“A politically motivated attorney general could take all of the complaints against a corporation that was objecting to some move the attorney general was trying to make and harass that company into the ground,” Shepard said.
The bill is scheduled for a public hearing on Friday. Leading members of the Joint Committee on Judiciary either failed to respond to requests for comment before press time or declined to comment, citing the public hearing.