Tough rules for state attorney general

December 6, 2017

Before running for Connecticut attorney general, those with designs on becoming the next Richard Blumenthal or George Jepsen should perhaps hire a lawyer — other than themselves.

Just ask former Secretary of the State and attorney Susan Bysiewicz who was ruled ineligible for the office in 2010 because she hadn’t practiced law for at least 10 years.

Now, a similar litmus test is being applied to Chris Mattei, the former assistant U.S. attorney who is best known for sending ex-Gov. John Rowland back to prison for campaign fraud.

No sooner did the Democrat declare his candidacy Monday for state attorney general than did questions arise about whether the young lawyer is eligible to hold the post, which is the only constitutional office in the state with a specific set of standards. Some asked whether Mattei’s eight years as a federal prosecutor in Connecticut count toward the requirement.

The eligibility rule is spelled out in a 120-year-old state law that says, “The attorney-general shall be an elector of this state, and an attorney-at-law of at least 10 years active practice at the bar of this state.” Legal experts say the law is ambiguous at best and subject to conflicting interpretations.

“With the federal system we have, you can make the case that federal experience is not (applicable), but I think that is an overly narrow reading,” said C. Ian McLachlan, a retired state Supreme Court Justice who ruled against Bysiewicz in 2010. “I think it clearly implies litigation experience.”

Mattei, who was admitted to the Connecticut bar in 2005 and joined the Bridgeport office of Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder as a trial lawyer in late 2015, said he’s confident he meets the qualifications of the job.

“I’ve been actively litigating cases in courtrooms across Connecticut for more than 10 years,” he said. “There’s been very little interpretation of that statute. We have not sought any ruling on that.”

State Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford, who is co-chairman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee and exploring a run for attorney general said state court experience shouldn’t be discounted though he declined to comment specifically about Mattei.

“I think state court practice is an incredibly important function of the attorney general and attorney general’s office because the attorney general’s office has such a wide civil jurisdiction,” he said. “Every day on the Judiciary Committee, I deal with the day-to-day responsibilities that the attorney general shares, for example, child protection, consumer protection claims.”

But Daniel Klau, a Hartford attorney and adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut Law School, said it boils down to the wording of the law versus the State Supreme Court opinion in the Bysiewicz case. In the latter, the majority of the justices concluded that attorney-at-law means an attorney with at least some experience litigating cases in court.

“There’s no question (Mattei) has been an active litigator for the bulk, if not all, of those 10 years,” Klau said. “The way the court construes the statute, he’s qualified. Now, I agree a person can make a contrary argument looking at only the language.”

Peter Zarella, another retired Supreme Court justice who ruled against Bysiewicz, said it’s a matter of semantics.

“I think there’s a difference between the state bar and the bar of this state,” he said. “It would seem to me that would include the U.S. District Court in Connecticut.”

Republican John Shaban, a former state legislator from Redding who is an attorney general candidate, said it’s no slam dunk case for Mattei.

“I think he may have a little bit of difficulty,” Shaban said. “I’ll let a judge figure that out. I don’t know if (the law is) an anachronism or if it’s more relevant than ever.”

Former House GOP Leader Larry Cafero, a Norwalk attorney, said it’s hard to make a case that Mattei is not qualified.

“Every big political corruption case you’ve ever seen has a Chris Mattei type on one side and a William Dow on the other,” Cafero said. “To say that they’re not qualified is a stretch. When you start excluding federal experience, gosh who are you down to?”

McLachlan, the retired justice, said he’s surprised the Legislature hasn’t modernized the language to make the law clearer.

“We thought that the statute would have been amended and maybe it should have been amended,” he said.

http://twitter.com/gettinviggy; nvigdor@hearstmediact.com; 203-625-4436