Attorney General Closer to Civil Rights Jurisdiction in Connecticut

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The Connecticut Senate has approved legislation expanding the role of the Attorney General.CT Numbers image

Connecticut is one step closer to expanding the authority of the Attorney General to include enforcing civil rights laws in Connecticut. Senate Bill 363, approved Friday in the State Senate, awaits action by the House with just a few days remaining in the 2021 legislative session.

The legislation formally recognizes the Attorney General's role in combating hate and defending civil rights, and would bring Connecticut in line with nearly half the states by formalizing the ability of the Attorney General to investigate and – where the evidence warrants – bring civil rights lawsuits to stop large-scale, systematic violations of existing constitutional and statutory rights, according to the Attorney General’s office. The legislation further allows the Attorney General to pursue civil enforcement of the state’s hate crimes laws.

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong said the “bipartisan vote is an historic step forward for civil rights enforcement in our state. Just days after the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, as we combat a torrent of anti-Asian violence and bigotry, as authorities investigate heinous nooses hanging from a construction site in our own state, as we confront acts of anti-Semitism in our communities, we are reminded that we can never take our civil rights and liberties for granted.”

“We are in the midst of a national reckoning on hate, race and justice, and Connecticut is not apart or immune. Over the past several years, this office has fought to protect the rights of Connecticut residents to vote safely, to access safe housing and affordable healthcare free from discrimination, and to protect due process rights of our immigrant families. And there is so much more work to be done,” Tong added. “This bill strengthens the ability of the Office of the Attorney General to proactively seek justice for those whose rights and liberties have come under attack.”

A person affected by the hate crime or civil rights violation would, under provisions of the legislation, retain the right to bring civil action in court and to file a Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO) complaint, according to an analysis by the Office of Legislative Research. It also authorizes the Attorney General to refer cases to CHRO as appropriate, and requires the office to post information on their website about properly filing a CHRO complaint.

The bill would also establish a civil penalty of up to $2,500 for each hate crime or civil rights violation that is established by clear and convincing evidence.

In testimony supporting the legislation earlier this year, the Connecticut Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) told legislators on the Judiciary Committee that “Hate crimes are distinct from other forms of criminal conduct, and thus merit a distinct response. These crimes occur solely or largely because of the perpetrator’s bias based on personal, protected characteristics, including race, religion, national origin, or other characteristics. Consequently, such crimes have a special emotional and psychological impact, expanding beyond the individual victim. Indeed, when a bias-motivated crime is committed, the victim’s entire community is left feeling victimized, fearful, isolated, and unprotected by the law.”

The bill allows the attorney general to investigate, intervene in, or bring a civil or administrative action in the state’s name seeking injunctive or declaratory relief, damages, and any other relief that may be available under law, whenever any person is engaged in conduct that violates another person’s civil rights as described above, according to the Office of Legislative Research.

The President of the AFL-CIO, Sal Luciano, testified on behalf of the proposed legislation in March, pointing out that “More than 20 state attorneys general already have a civil rights division within their office. At this time when we share a heightened awareness of our society’s shortcomings, we need to find the political will to empower the Attorney General in this way. Our most vulnerable residents need and deserve that protection.”

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