Bysiewicz sues for right to run for state AG

Hartford - Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz sued the state and the Democratic Party Thursday to clarify her eligibility to serve as Connecticut's attorney general.

Bysiewicz announced last month that she would run for the office, but questions have been raised about whether she was eligible to do so under state law, which requires attorneys general to have completed at least 10 years of "active practice" of law before the Connecticut bar.

In the suit, Bysiewicz will attempt to establish that she has met that legal requirement, but will also challenge the legislature's ability to set any qualification requirements for the position at all. Her suit argues that such requirements could only be set by amending the state constitution.

Article 6 of the state constitution states that every elector who has reached the age of majority "shall be eligible for any office in the state," except those of governor and lieutenant governor, for which a candidate must be at least 30 years old.

Earlier this month, at Bysiewicz's request, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal issued an opinion on the matter. While refusing to speak specifically to the question of Bysiewicz's eligibility to run for attorney general, Blumenthal said that the law requiring 10 years of "active practice" did not violate the constitution.

Bysiewicz and her attorneys in the suit, Wesley W. Horton and Daniel J. Krisch, rejected that opinion Thursday, saying they will focus on demonstrating to the court that she has met the qualifications of legal service under existing law.

Bysiewicz worked for six years in private practice in Connecticut before her election to the state legislature in 1992. Since her election in 1998, she has served as Secretary of the State, a position that she and her attorneys contend qualifies as active legal practice because the office issues opinions and guidance on interpretations of state election law.

Among the candidates, she said, "I am the only person who runs a very large executive agency, where I supervise many attorneys and legal assistants and give legal advice every day. That is the same kind of job that Richard Blumenthal does as attorney general, and it's why I believe the campaign will show that I am the best qualified person for the job of attorney general."

She added that the suit, like the campaign in general, was a chance to show voters "how you fight."

But seeking the court ruling at all is a stark reversal of Bysiewicz's public statements she made only days ago, insisting that such a move would not be necessary.

Asked to explain the shift in her position, Bysiewicz acknowledged that voters and Democratic delegates she has been courting for the party's nomination had asked that her status be clarified.

"I think it will be an opportunity to solve once and for all a question that has been lingering in Connecticut law for more than 100 years," she said. "I have been told by voters and delegates that they would like this question resolved, absolutely."

Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy DiNardo said the party welcomed the suit, in which it is named as a defendant, in the hopes it will convince a judge to take up the issue now, before the party's convention and primary this summer. Otherwise, some Democrats are concerned that a judge might not hear the case qualifications until an election has already taken place.

The decision to go to court could trigger a remarkable legal battle among some of the state's most high-profile Democratic politicians.

Bysiewicz could have to submit evidence or submit to cross-examination to determine why her service as secretary of the state, a position that does not require a law degree, constitutes legal practice, some observers said Thursday.

"I think she has to be cross-examined," said Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee. "She's making a factual argument that she actively practiced law. I assume they'll have to produce proof that she did."

In a statement, Blumenthal said his office would "defend the constitutionality of the law" requiring 10 years of active practice. He also said the extent to which Bysiewicz had met the standard would have to be tested by a court.

Blumenthal's previous opinion "concluded that 'active practice of law' requires more than simply maintaining a law license, but the exact definition is a factual question that must be decided on a case-by-case basis by a court, as today's legal action apparently seeks."

Bysiewicz's rivals for the Democratic nomination said they believe a court should decide the issue of her eligibility.

"I do think that this is the right move," said Rep. Cameron Staples, D-New Haven. "I personally credit the state party chair, who I believe was involved in bringing this about."

"I've enjoyed watching Susan dance over the legal questions that have been placed in front of her," said George Jepsen, a former state senator and ex-chair of the Democratic Party, who is also running. "For example, her reaction to Blumenthal's opinion of a couple weeks ago, where she ultimately declared victory and went home when it clearly said, 'You have to go to court.' "

t.mann@theday.com

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