Updated: Bysiewicz stands by argument that she is qualified to be AG
Editor’s note: In the original article, Bysiewicz’s answer to a question about whether singing in a rock and roll band constituted the practice of law was deleted. The question and the answer have been restored to this version.
No matter what she’s doing, whether it’s holding a press conference, going fishing or playing in a rock band, Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz argues she’s engaged in the active practice of law.
That’s the position Bysiewicz staked out under questioning by a skeptical attorney for the Republican Party last week as part of her lawsuit challenging Connecticut’s requirement that attorneys general have at least 10 years of active legal practice in the state to be qualified for the office.
Bysiewicz, a Democrat running for attorney general, contends the 10-year requirement is unconstitutional, but says even if it is upheld, her 11-year tenure as secretary of the state should count as legal practice since she has a law degree and is admitted to the bar.
In fact, she said, in a series of occasionally contentious exchanges with attorney Eliot B. Gersten, her legal experience should be counted as 24 years, back to her successful graduation from law school and the beginning of her legal practice in New York.
Transcripts of the deposition were released by the office of Attorney General Richard Blumenthal on Tuesday, the same day Bysiewicz’s attorneys dropped a legal effort to have the deposition tapes sealed by the court.
In the transcripts, Gersten picks away at Bysiewicz’s accounting of her total legal experience.
In one exchange, in the deposition’s second day, Bysiewicz conceded that she worked in private practice for less than the six years she has claimed, taking a leave of absence of several months in the early 1990s to work on Blumenthal’s first campaign for attorney general.
“So ... you’re indicating that even if you don’t engage in the practice of law and you just do political work,” Gersten asked, “that’s considered to be part of the way you count your involvement in the active practice of law because of the way it was done in 1897? Do I have that right?”
“In 1897,” Bysiewicz replied, “active practice probably meant simply” those who have not retired, “and I had not retired from the practice of law when I was working on Mr. Blumenthal’s campaign.”
Gersten took that argument to its logical extreme.
“Now, let’s assume for a moment you have an individual who graduated Duke law and then practiced for four or five years in private practice, and then went to go to work as a rock and roll singer and engaged in the rock and roll industry as a singer. Is that person engaged in the active practice of law?” he asked.
“Sure,” Bysiewicz answered.
Bysiewicz also acknowledged a marked lack of experience in courtrooms, explaining that by saying she has worked as a “corporate lawyer, not a litigator.”
With the exception of some work on pro bono cases at the New York firm White & Case in the 1980s, Bysiewicz said the only brief she had filed with a court was one that was rejected last year — an effort to file an amicus brief in the 2nd Circuit Court appeal about Connecticut’s campaign financing law.
Other than one appearance in small claims court, Bysiewicz has never argued in a lawsuit, she conceded, and said she last watched court proceedings from the public-seating section of a courtroom as a first-year law student roughly 25 years ago.
But Bysiewicz countered that her office’s election-law attorneys give legal advice to political candidates and occasionally offer legal opinions on the meaning of election laws, and because she supervises them, she is engaged in the active practice of law. She also argued that her frequent testimony before legislative committees constituted the practice of law.
Over the three days, Gersten also hammered away at a central point for both Republicans and Bysiewicz’s Democratic opponents, questioning whether her current position and its authority over state election laws should qualify as legal practice.
Secretaries of the state are not required to be attorneys, Gersten noted, naming several recent holders of the office, including Miles Rapoport and Ella Grasso. And he pressed Bysiewicz to name any legal opinions in which she had personal involvement before they were issued.
Bysiewicz named only three, and said she couldn’t recall any time in the past six months in which she had sat down to discuss election opinions to be issued by her election lawyers — or even if those attorneys, Lou Button and Ted Bromley, had issued any opinions at all.
In an interview Tuesday, Bob Martino, an attorney volunteering for Bysiewicz’s campaign, said depositions are “by definition fishing expeditions,” and said he was confident she would prevail on the merits in the suit.
Connecticut specifically permits holders of the secretary of the state’s office to engage in legal practice, he said. That statute is intended to protect non-lawyers in the job from being penalized for practicing law without a license, thus demonstrating that the daily duties of the office amount to legal practice, as Bysiewicz and her attorneys argue.
“We’re very optimistic that once we have an opportunity to put our case on in court,” Martino said, “the decision will be clear that she more than meets the requirements to be attorney general.
“There are many definitions of active practice, one of which is whether you have active status at the bar, and she has been active status at the bar for more than 24 years.”
Gersten questioned why Bysiewicz’s office had compiled and maintained a database that categorized individuals by political affiliation, ethnicity and other characteristics, and why her official calendars show substantial numbers of visits to Democratic town committee meetings and political events — a frequent topic of umbrage among state Republicans.
Judging by one calendar supplied by Bysiewicz, Gersten remarked, “it appears the only thing the secretary of state did was have a few meetings with the democratic town committees during the year stretching from March 12th, 2000, all the way to December 2000, correct?”
Other calendars could show more official events, Bysiewicz said, but conceded that “there is something that seems odd about that.”
When Gersten pressed about whether Bysiewicz had attended any Republican town committee events, she cited a demonstration of voting machines in Waterbury and a presentation to honor “some citizens of the year.”
“So that’s two?” Gersten asked.
“Uh-huh,” Bysiewicz responded. “I tend to get invited less to those.”
Near the end of the third and final day of questioning, Bysiewicz conceded she had taken time away from her official duties during weekdays to make fundraising calls, but could not say how much personal time she had devoted to those efforts over the past month. Such fundraising activity, Bysiewicz said, was one pursuit that did not qualify as practicing law.
“Even though you have your law degree and you’re admitted to the practice of law in the state of Connecticut, there’s now an activity we’ve identified that you don’t think symbolizes the active practice of law, correct?” Gersten asked.
“Correct,” she said.
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