Under oath and in open court, the Democratic front-runner for attorney general was roughly cross-examined Wednesday about her qualifications by a lawyer for the Connecticut Republican Party.
Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz invited the novel interrogation by asking a Hartford Superior Court judge in February to rule on whether she has the necessary 10 years active practice of law in Connecticut.
Judge Michael R. Sheldon reserved his verdict. Republican State Chairman Christopher Healy did not, saying that her testimony exposed “a hollow legal career. It’s vapid. There’s nothing to it.”
After six hours of testimony, Bysiewicz and her attorney, Wesley Horton, left the courthouse without comment. She returns to the stand Thursday morning.
By her own account, she spent more time in court Wednesday than than she had during her entire previous political career.
Bysiewicz, 48, graduated from Duke University’s law school 24 years ago, but the question dogging her campaign for attorney general is whether she has had 10 years of “active practice at the bar” in Connecticut. She began her career in New York.
Without counting at least some of her 11 years as secretary of the state, Bysiewicz falls short of the 10 years. A second question is whether “at the bar” means litigating in court, a standard Bysiewicz acknowledges she could not meet.
“I was a corporate lawyer,” Bysiewicz said of her years in private practice. “My work was keeping my business clients out of court.”
Her campaign is hardly floundering, despite an unflattering video deposition taken in the case over three days, portions of which are available on You Tube.
On Tuesday, she reported raising $214,000 in the quarter ending March 31, leaving her with $345,000 cash on hand, far outdistancing two lesser-known rivals for the nomination, former Senate Majority Leader George Jepsen and Rep. Cameron Staples, D-New Haven.
On the witness stand in a dark, wood-paneled courtroom, Bysiewicz repeatedly displayed a politician’s tendency to shade, to justify and to explain Wednesday, when all that was required was a crisp “yes” or “no.”
Sheldon urged her to come to the point several times.
Bysiewicz fought to explain why she had filled out forms over a half-dozen years in a way that seemed to indicate she was not engaged in the practice of law.
Eliot Gersten presented her with copies of a form lawyers must complete if they are seeking a full or partial exemption from a fee all active lawyers pay into a client security fund.
She checked off a box next to this statement: “I do not engage in the practice of law as an occupation AND have not and do not expect to earn more than $450 in legal fees or other compensation for services involving the practice of law during the current calendar year.”
“As of May 22, 2006, you indicated you did not engage in the practice of law?” Gersten asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
Bysiewicz tried to expand on her answer, saying that her occupation was secretary of the state. Checking the box did not mean she was not engaged in the practice of law, because she used her law background as secretary of the state, she said.
“On May 16, 2007 you again indicated you do not engage in the practice of law as an occupation?” Gersten asked.
She acknowledged she did.
Bysiewicz also acknowledged indicating to the Department of Revenue Services some years that she was not practicing and did not need to file an attorney’s occupational tax form.
In response to questions by Horton in the morning, Bysiewicz testified that she supervises lawyers at the secretary of the state’s office, testifies before the legislature on matters of election and business law and advises local election officials.
Bysiewicz said she considered testifying before the General Assembly on proposed legislation to be the practice of law.
Under the light of a brass goose-neck lamp, Sheldon took copious notes on a white legal pad throughout the day, looking over his reading glasses to rule on objections raised by Horton to Gersten’s questions.
Horton accused Gersten of badgering his client. Sheldon urged Gersten to move to other topics a few times, but he allowed most of the questions about her experience as a lawyer.
“Are you able to identify any time in the five past years where you identified yourself as an attorney?”
“I’m sure I have on occasion,” she said.
Did she ever have a retainer agreement?
She replied she did – with Horton.
“You’re the client, right?”
Has she given any legal advice to a private party?
“Other than my husband, no.”
Gersten challenged her about statements she had made in political events, where she compared herself to Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who is running for U.S. Senate.
“But the attorney general represents clients doesn’t he?”
“He represents agencies, and he also represents the citizens of our state, as I do,” she replied.
“Do you ever tell people you never personally prosecuted a case, ever?”
She began with an explanation. Sheldon cut her off.
“Just answer him, what he asked.”
Again, she tried to add context to what Sheldon saw as a yes or no question. He urged her to offer a one-word answer.
“Anything else is surplusage,” the judge said.
Gersten repeated the question.
“No, she replied.
How much time does she engage in active practice of law as secretary of the state?
“I couldn’t give you a precise amount of time,” she said. “I can tell you that each and every day I am engaged in the active practice of law.”