I have long grown accustomed to the facts of life known to all criminal defense lawyers: little people get run over and crushed in court. When a defendant errs, he is prosecuted, sanctioned, held accountable. When the government errs, an exception to the rule defining the error saves the day. We call it the heinous crime exception to the Bill of Rights. I keep fighting because, frankly, the fight is all there is. I accept futility as a portion of my daily bread.
But I did not know that this sense of futility would come to define the civil side as well. And I never expected it to be embraced with enthusiasm by lawmakers.
I was naive.
Last week, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling declaring that the state’s ouster of an elected school board in Bridgeport unlawful. It was a stunning rebuke of the administration of Dannel Malloy.
There was little doubt about the outcome of the appeal to the state Supreme Court. The only real surprise was Justice Richard Palmer’s dissent. There was whispering around the state last week that the dissent was withheld as long as possible to delay publication of the decision. Some speculate that this was so the governor’s men could try to sneak through the General Assembly a measure designed to retroactively cure the issue before high court. Perhaps it was a mere coincidence that the decision was published only days after these pages called on the Court to account for the delay in publication of the opinion.
The Supreme Court ordered the case remanded to the trial court to set a special election date for vacant school board seats. The unlawfully seated board remains in power until a new board can be selected. Such are the difficult equities created by this coup: Bridgeport’s school need to be managed. So an illegal board remains in place until a lawful one can be installed. In the meantime, my clients, who were elected to terms of office that are as yet unexpired, are locked out of offices they were elected to fill.
This would normally shock the sensibilities of the political class. Imagine, turning out an elected official and replacing him or her with a gubernatorial appointee. This is the very sort of conduct we deplore in third-world countries.
It’s all business as usual for Gov. Malloy. Rather than accept a rebuke by the high court, his lobbyists are working lawmakers over and trying to pass an emergency measure to justify the Bridgeport coup. The governor’s legal advisers have, apparently, never been accused of being too smart. Yes, the Supreme Court decided the case on narrow statutory grounds, thus avoiding the underlying constitutional issues. That is what high courts do. But does anyone really believe that the General Assembly can deprive an elected official of the right to serve by passage of a Special Act? There are grave constitutional issues that will be addressed should this theft of the vote be dragged on by attrition or political artifice.
As this was written, the governor’s men, and Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, were walking legislative corridors looking for votes for extraordinary remedial legislation. The governor wants a bill passed in an expedited manner, without a public hearing. And for good measure: What pimp wants to rub his customer’s nose in the fact that it is not love, but lucre, that brings them their pleasure?
For all I know, these anti-Democratic conspirators may well get the votes they need, thus guaranteeing that the case will return both to state and federal courts on state and federal constitutional claims. In the meantime, residents of every city in the state with struggling schools gets the message: You’re too stupid to run your own schools. Dannel knows best.
Forgive me my cynicism, nay, call it contempt, for this direct assault on democracy. The governor is said to have his eyes on national office. If this is the ethos he brings to governing, I hope the office he seeks is not in this nation. This cold-blooded assault on elected offices cannot be justified by platitudes about the needs of children. Top-down reform of school boards doesn’t address what ails urban schools. We need housing, jobs, civic responsibility: we don’t need autocratic hijinks by politicians enjoying the satin sheets of corporate support.
Little people won in the state Supreme Court last week. The governor wants to make sure that even if they won, they lose the right to occupy the offices to which they were elected. That ought to be a crime, but, instead, it is business as usual for an arrogant governor. Even elected municipal officials are now treated like criminals.
Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.