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Connecticut could loosen qualifications to run for Attorney General

Rep. Matt Blumenthal addresses the House.
Mark Pazniokas
CT Mirror
Rep. Matt Blumenthal addresses the House.

Connecticut’s unusual requirement that a lawyer have a decade of “active practice” in the state to run for attorney general would be changed to six years of practice under a bill promoted Wednesday by Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford.

Blumenthal was admitted to the Connecticut bar six years ago and will be one year short of the currently required decade in 2026, the next scheduled election for attorney general and other statewide constitutional offices.

“I guess I want to know who really benefits by reducing the years from 10 to six,” Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco, R-Wolcott, asked Blumenthal at a committee meeting. “Can you explain why we’re doing that?”

Blumenthal, a Yale law school graduate who is a trial lawyer with Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder, did not mention that the change also would qualify him to run, should Attorney General William Tong seek another office.

“Currently, under our statute … attorneys of all sorts are excluded, regardless of their actual level of experience,” he replied. “There are individuals who have been engaged primarily in federal practice. Currently, they do not qualify.”

The bill was endorsed Wednesday by the Government Administration and Elections Committee, which Blumenthal co-chairs, and sent to the floor of the House.

Blumenthal said he took up the statute at the request of leadership.

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said the chiefs of staff for the House Democratic and Republican caucuses asked that the definition of a practicing law be clarified, but the proposed six-year standard was Blumenthal’s decision.

The unusual requirements to run for AG have been ripe for review since 2010, when the state Supreme Court rocked the Connecticut political world by concluding that the “active practice” of law meant experience as a trial lawyer.

The unanimous decision overturned a lower court decision and disqualified Susan Bysiewicz in mid-campaign to succeed Blumenthal’s father, Richard Blumenthal, as attorney general.

Bysiewicz, who then was the secretary of the state, had a law degree from Duke and more than a decade as a member of the bar, but she lacked the trial experience that the court equated with “active practice.”

The beneficiary of the decision was George Jepsen, who easily won the Democratic nomination and general election after Bysiewicz was forced to withdraw.

Even Jepsen calls the current law misguided, though not necessarily because of the 10-year requirement.

Limiting the office to trial attorneys might have made sense when the law was passed in 1898, but not now when the attorney general acts more as a managing partner of a large office, not someone who goes to court, Jepsen said.

“Practicing law is far more encompassing than simply showing up in a courtroom. And it means that all kinds of people with fabulous experience as a lawyer are deprived of the opportunity to run,” he said.

House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, agrees with Jepsen that the trial experience should be stricken as a requisite.

“The job no longer is [as] in the days of old, where the the attorney general was actually the one that went into court representing the state,” said Candelora, a businessman who also is a lawyer.

Candelora said he and Ritter discussed clarifying in statute that trial experience was not a requirement, and a bill was drafted along those lines, House Bill 6869. It is similar to the bill passed in committee, House Bill 6868, with one notable exception — it keeps the 10-year standard.

Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Windham, the other co-chair of the committee, said she also wanted to use a six-year standard, saying 10 years of practice could be a barrier to women who might have taken time off.

Other states set simple and clear-cut qualifications: typically a minimum age (as low as 18 in many states), a requirement of citizenship or residency, and, in some cases, admission to the state’s bar. None, according to a review of qualifications by the Office of Legislative Research, specify courtroom experience.

Candelora submitted written testimony objecting to eliminating the 10-year requirement. In an interview Wednesday, he suggested that a six-year limit was an odd number.

“I think the question is … Should it be zero or 10?” Candelora said. “I think it’s curious why the committee out of nowhere is reducing it from 10 to six.”

Blumenthal declined to talk about the potential impact on him before the committee meeting. His father was attorney general for 20 years before his election to the U.S. Senate in 2010.

The younger Blumenthal has not publicly talked about whether he has ambitions for statewide office.

The bill he promoted Wednesday would require that a candidate for attorney general be “a member in good standing of the bar of this state, and have engaged in the practice of law in this state for at least six years.”

By striking “active practice,” the bill no would require trial experience, Blumenthal said.

As far as Mastrofrancesco’s question about who would benefit from the change, he told her, “I think the voters do.”

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.