By the time the Judiciary Committee had finished meeting behind closed doors Monday, it had only four hours to work its way through a 64-bill agenda by its 5 p.m. deadline. By close of business, they’d gotten to 45 of them.
The committee succeeded for the second year in a row in passing a measure that would clarify the qualifications for the office of Attorney General. Under the bill, to be eligible for to run for the office, an attorney would only have to be a member of the Connecticut bar for 10 years.
The bill would scrap the current requirement that a candidate be engaged in the “active practice” of law for 10 years. The legislation is the reincarnation of a bill that died on the Senate calendar last year. That bill stemmed from a 2010 state Supreme Court decision that disqualified then-secretary of the state and attorney general candidate Susan Bysiewicz for lack of litigation experience.
The issue was raised again just seven days before the election, when Republican candidate Martha Dean filed a lawsuit claiming Democratic candidate George Jepsen also was unqualified because he lacked litigation experience. A Superior Court judge found Dean did not have standing to question Jepsen’s qualifications.
During the meeting Monday, several Republicans objected to the measure, saying that under the changes just about anyone could run for attorney general. Rep. Richard Smith, R-New Fairfield, said the bill made the qualifications hollow.
“You don’t even have to practice,” Smith said. “If you passed the bar for at least 10 years, you are now eligible to be the attorney general for the state of Connecticut. I think this sets such a poor example.”
However, Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, said it should be up to the voters to decide who is the best candidate. The law containing the requirement dates back to 1897 and Meyer said no other office is held to a similar standard.
“We really rely on the election system to work for us here,” he said. “To set a standard for this position and this position only doesn’t seem appropriate.”
The bill passed 28-16.
The committee also passed a modified version of another bill that seeks to discourage the sexual exploitation of minors. In its initial form, the bill would have made website and newspaper publishers liable for a felony charge if they published an advertisement for an escort service that turned out to be an ad for the prostitution of a minor.
However, the bill was met with concerns that it violated the First Amendment. Its proponent, Rep. Jeffrey Berger, D-Waterbury, said he didn’t think those concerns were valid.
“There were many concerns about First Amendment rights and privileges and we can agree to disagree on that,” Berger said.
Still, Berger agreed to substitute language which lets publishers off the hook and goes after the person who placed the advertisement. The modified bill passed the committee unanimously.
The committee also voted down two bills. One would have toned down a law that imposes stricter penalties for possessing or selling drugs near a school or a public housing project, and the other was related to the inmate early release program.
Committee Co-Chairman Sen. Eric Coleman said the goal of the proposed change to the so-called “drug-free” school and housing project zones was to correct disparities in the criminal justice system, which penalizes people who live in urban areas.
The bill would have reduced the drug free zones around schools from 1,500 feet to 200 feet in towns with populations greater than 60,000. It also would have eliminated the enhanced penalties near public housing projects.
Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield said that in some of the state’s cities, even at 1,000 feet it was difficult to find a place that was not within a school zone.
However, Rep. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, said the penalties should be the same regardless of the distance. Sampson said changing the law would make drug sales more likely around schools. The bill was defeated 26-19.
The committee squashed another piece of legislation that would have modified the state’s inmate early release program passed last year.
The program allows inmates the opportunity to come up for a parole hearing sooner if they participate in programs aimed at reducing the likelihood they’ll return to prison. An inmate can shave as many as five days a month off their prison sentences by participating
However, Rep. John Hetherington’s bill would have increased the number of crimes that make an inmate ineligible for the program by adding any crime that resulted in the death of a person.
“It is not being honest with the victims,” Hetherington said. “The victims come to understand our law imposes certain penalties, they’re often assured when a plea is negotiated that a felon will serve a certain term as prescribed by law and we should keep faith with the victims.”
Rep. Themis Klarides, R-Derby, agreed, saying most people in the state don’t believe people guilty of those crimes should be eligible for the opportunity to leave prison early. She said lawmakers should correct a mistake they made last year.
“This is one of the most saddening and disappointing things we have done in this building in a long time and to not pass this would be letting down people of state of Connecticut,” Klarides said.
It was a close vote, but the majority of the committee members disagreed. The bill was defeated 23-20.
The committee did not have time to address nearly 20 of the bills on Monday’s agenda.
One that was not called before deadline would have allowed adults who were adopted as children to access information about their biological parents. Currently, in Connecticut and most other states, adoptees only have access to amended birth certificates that omit the names of the biological parents.
The bill would have also helped provide adoptees with access to their biological parents’ medical records once they turn 21.
The bill’s proponent, Meyer, said the committee’s chairs made the call not raise the bill because they anticipated it would generate a lot of debate on a day when time was short. It also was likely the bill wouldn’t pass since the committee voted it down last year 27-16. Meyer said he is not giving up on the concept.
“If I’m back here, I’m going to be bringing it back next year,” he said.