The Road to the Senate Is Paved With Lawsuits

Over at the Yankee Institute I have an article on HB 7222, a bill currently sitting before the Joint Committee on Judiciary which would enlarge the powers of Connecticut’s attorney general, William Tong, to take action in civil-rights cases.

In the aftermath of last summer’s Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruling 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. …

HB 7222, 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.

While I don’t object to the AG opening a civil-rights division, I’m very worried about the draconian language specific to HB 7222, which robs the accused of due process and puts them on the hook financially the minute the AG initiates an action. I won’t repeat those criticisms here; instead, you can read my article at Yankee.

The biggest violator of civil rights is government, full stop. It was government that enforced Jim Crow; it was government that refused to acknowledge gay marriages. If a baker doesn’t make me a cake for my gay wedding, I have multiple avenues of recourse: I can file a complaint with our Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, and/or I can simply go to another bakery. But when the violator is government itself, I have little relief except through their own courts.

From justice reform to overworked and underfunded public defenders, there’s plenty of civil-rights beef in this state for a hungry AG to chase. However, I’m skeptical that Tong is interested in taking on government bodies, which is why I worry about the bill’s language — it’s aimed at private citizens or companies who rouse his ire, not at municipalities or public bureaucracies.

While writing the story, I kept asking the AG’s spokeswoman what kinds of actions Tong was interested in taking if the bill passed. Would there suddenly be a crackdown on bigoted bakeries? Or would he sue the police departments of municipalities cooperating with ICE in tracking the whereabouts of illegal immigrants, as was revealed last week by the ACLU? In other words, was he planning to sue private citizens or take action against government nonfeasance or malfeasance? She didn’t answer my question, but instead told me the AG would do so himself in his testimony before the Joint Committee, which occurred on Friday.

Reading Tong’s testimony (pdf) has only slightly mollified my concerns. In it, he cites several recent incidents as examples his office would investigate:

The Islamic Center in New London receives fake poison in the mail, or Klansmen ride in Stafford Springs.

African-American and Latinx people in Hartford are denied safe, quality housing while the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development sits on its hands.

Immigrants in our cities and towns are subjected to large-scale, systematic wage theft.

Connecticut residents with disabilities fear being pushed out of jobs because a big box store has decided to reclassify their position without accommodation.

Somebody sending poison, fake or otherwise, through the mail is a straight-up crime. Keep in mind that in Connecticut, there’s a strict division of responsibility between the attorney general, who pursues civil actions, and the chief state’s attorney, who prosecutes criminal charges, so this case would fall squarely under the latter’s jurisdiction. Moreover, terrorism through the mail is a federal crime and the Postal Inspection Service would be all over this long before the AG arrived on the scene. I don’t see what Tong could do beyond sue the culprit who should already be in prison.

As for the Klan incident, it was hardly a “ride.” Police suspect it was a handful of dumb teenagers at a party. Tong might as well sue the governor of Virginia while he’s at it.

The other three examples are more relevant, although it’s still unclear what action Tong would take in each of those cases. Sue HUD? Sue the feds to bring about immigration reform, so that more immigrants are legalized and thereby on the books? Again, no answers. Keeping a close eye on Walmart is probably the only thing Tong and I agree on.

More instructive, however, are the five cases Tong further lists in which state attorney generals — armed with the same kind of power granted by HB 7222 — won civil-rights victories, most of them through settlements rather than through the courts. The opponent in each case he mentions is a private company or institution.

Which I think is the clearest answer I’m gonna get. Tong isn’t interested in suing police departments cooperating with ICE. He isn’t interested in suing HUD or the Department of Homeland Security. He’s looking to sue companies.

And it’s not a bad strategy when you consider Tong’s long game. Tong clearly has ambitions for national office: he ran for Lieberman’s senate seat in 2012, only to lose to Chris Murphy in the primary. Our other senator, Richard Blumenthal, is 73. Winning settlements against big companies is a great way for Tong to build his brand and increase name recognition for the day when Blumenthal’s seat comes up for grabs. After all, it worked for Blumenthal himself, who forged his career with consumer-protection victories as our state attorney general.

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