As it stands right now, no attorney employed by the State of Connecticut will ever lose their license to practice law for misconduct committed on the job.
To quote the Statewide Grievance Committee’s own posted rules:
This office accepts grievance complaints against individual attorneys. We do not accept grievance complaints against judges, probate judges, magistrates, or state employees who are not attorneys. We do not process complaints against state employees, who are also attorneys, if the complaint involves their official duties or decisions they made. Those complaints are subject to summary dismissal under Connecticut Practice Book Section 2-32(a)(2)(B).
It’s not clear when this rule developed. The committee, through a spokesperson, declined to comment. The committee was established in 1948 by statute but there are mentions of a “Grievance Committee” seeking to regulate the practice of law in Connecticut as early as 1941.
Amendments to that enabling statute appeared twice in the 1960s and every few years through the 1980s. But none of the changes to the law state that state employees are immune to complaint, investigation or loss of license, and no one can change the law except through the legislative process.
The committee’s unwillingness to entertain such complaints isn’t a part of Connecticut’s Rules of Professional Conduct as the Statewide Grievance Committee’s website implies. In fact, the cited rule has nothing to do with public employment. Instead, Practice Book Section 2-32 (a)(2)(B) states simply that the Statewide Grievance Committee won’t consider non-substantive claims; that the committee will dismiss any “complaint [that] does not allege facts which if true, would constitute a violation of any provision of the applicable rules governing attorney conduct.”
The reference suggests that anything an attorney does on the state’s payroll is approved.
A carve-out of this type for any profession would be ill-advised, but for lawyers it should invite chuckles — and scrutiny.
And if you check court records even the Statewide Grievance Committee doesn’t really believe its own hype of state attorneys.
In 1994, a lawyer was facing discipline for allegedly bringing charges of molestation against a particular defendant without probable cause, among other violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct. But before the investigation could even kick off, Senior Supervisory States Attorney John M. Massameno used the separation of powers doctrine as a sword and filed for an injunction, arguing that the judicial branch – namely through the Statewide Grievance Committee – could not regulate and sanction employees of the Division of Criminal Justice, which is part of the executive branch.
The Statewide Grievance Committee objected and the Supreme Court of Connecticut agreed with the committee. The court made it clear that any licensed attorney is “an officer of the court in the administration of justice, is continually accountable to it for the manner in which he exercises the privilege which has been accorded him.”
At the time, Massameno chafed at that accountability. He argued that the collective bargaining agreement between the union of employees of the Division of Criminal Justice and the State was sufficient incentive for prosecutors to adhere to standards of professional ethics. But the current collective bargaining agreement between the state and AFSCME Council 4’s Local 749 deals only with employment, not fitness to hold the license.
The purpose of attorney discipline — and of licensing lawyers in the first place – is to introduce jeopardy should they misbehave and to protect the public. Whether these various disciplinary authorities actually do that is debatable, but the design of the system is clear: an attorney who either can’t or won’t protect his client’s interests shouldn’t be in the profession.
But the Statewide Grievance Committee’s current rule instead discourages an attorney from being less hinky. The greenlighting of Machialvellian methodologies is only compounded by the protection of sovereign, judicial or even quasi-judicial immunity, bars to civil liability for state employees, particularly those who work in the judicial branch, that keep them from answering for bad behavior through a lawsuit.
There is virtually no control over the attorneys hired by the State to work in the courts or the Division of Criminal Justice, including the Statewide Bar Counsel who run the committee. If the committee itself created this rule that says no viable complaint against them will stand, then it’s rife with self-interest.
Not all attorneys employed by the State are prosecutors. Indeed, many public defenders are employed by the State of Connecticut, as are attorneys for the various administrative agencies.
But protecting prosecutors with this rule affects the public, and Black men in particular. More than half of the exonerations in Connecticut — 17 out of 31 — have involved official misconduct. Eleven of those seventeen involved prosecutorial misconduct. Five of them involved a State’s Attorney knowingly allowing perjured testimony. One involved a prosecutor lying. Ten of these cases wrongly convicted a Black man.
Because it’s not clear when the State employment exemption started — and because the Grievance Committee doesn’t maintain records of dismissed complaints — it’s impossible to tell if someone filed a complaint alleging the misconduct that led to a wrongful conviction (one that has been proven to be wrongful through an exoneration) and was turned away by the committee.
The Statewide Grievance Committee reports to virtually no one. They refer complaints for which they found probable cause for prosecution or presentment — taking an allegedly erring attorney to court to decide whether he should keep his license — to the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel.
The provenance of this rule exempting State Attorneys from discipline needs examination, including whether it squares with the Supreme Court’s holding in Massameno case.
Allowing any group of attorneys to operate without regulation is unthinkable, but implicitly approving every exercise of discretion among the attorneys with the power to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate people is a punch in the gut for any defendant who has been on the receiving end of their less-than-honorable actions.
Bozelko served more than six years at the York Correctional Institution. While she was incarcerated for non-violent crimes that remain on appeal, Bozelko published a book of poetry entitled Up the River: An Anthology (Bleakhouse, 2013).