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March 5, 2015
The legislative Judiciary Committee has plenty of high-profile issues before it this session, including proposals addressing juvenile justice, domestic violence prevention and foreclosure mediation. But there are smaller issues as well, dealing with power of attorney to search warants to statutes of limitations in civil cases, that are being closely tracked by Connecticut bar groups.
Some of the most talked-about bills that would affect the legal community involve Gov. Dannel Malloy's "second chance society" initiative, which calls for more lenient sentences for those arrested for drug possession and other non-violent acts. The committee is also continuing the unfinished work of implementing recommendations from the Connecticut Sentencing Commission, including those concerning juvenile justice sentences in the wake of U.S. Supreme Court rulings stating that long sentences for juveniles offering no chance of parole are unconstitutional.
Bill Chapman, the lead lobbyist for the Connecticut Bar Association, said the organization is monitoring "about 900 bills" that could have an impact on lawyers. "Some of those bills are of interest for multiple practice sections of the CBA," Chapman said. "Obviously, of those bills and concepts, they won't all be raised, but we are watching.
With an "interest in anything that is going to affect the way that lawyers practice law," Chapman said the organization is supporting "a number of uniform laws affecting real property, business and commercial finance." For instance, the CBA is supporting a measure to create a uniform power of attorney act in the state, to align Connecticut law with the statutory language used in other states.
Chapman said the bar association, however, does not support a meaure to create a statewide standardized contract form for the sale of residential real estate. "There are also a number of domestic violence and restraining order bills we are watching," Chapman said. "All family law bills are on our radar. And we have interest in how the budget will affect the Judicial Branch."
Chief Justice Chase Rogers has already complained about a proposal that would eliminate the Court Support Services Division of the Judicial Branch. Juvenile services would be moved to the Department of Children and Families and other functions such as adult probation would be handled by the Department of Correction. The move would transfer about 1,500 jobs to executive branch agencies, Rogers estimated.
The CBA is also watching initiatives that would turn a Judicial Branch foreclosure mediation initiative from a pilot program to a permanent program. And the association is watching an "aid-in-dying" bill which would allow doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs to terminally ill patients with less than six months to live.
State Rep. William Tong, who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee, said the panel has just started reviewing proposals. Much of the focus this year is on statutes relating to criminal law. For instance, the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut is pushing a bill that would require police to obtain a warrant before looking at someone's cell phone data.
Under a little noticed state law passed in 2005, police in the state has been granted court orders without the same evidentiary requirements as warrants to gain access to regular phone records. ACLU staff attorney David McGuire have been said the law needs to restrict police from gaining more information than they need for criminal investigations. "As more and more information becomes available about people from their mobile devices, it's more important to protect them from excessive intrusions by the government," McGuire said. "It's too easy for police to obtain this information now from cellphone companies."
Tong said some of the proposals before the committee relate to national law enforcement issues. For instance, one bill would limit the amount of military equipment Connecticut police departments would own.
Because of the impact on the African-American community, discussions to modify sentencing guidelines are also especially relevant "in light of recent tragedies" involving deaths of minority men at the hands of police in Ferguson, Mo. and Staten Island, N.Y., Tong said.
Other "big-ticket" items this session include proposed laws that would strengthen and expand the state's efforts to combat domestic violence. In one proposal that has already drawn considerable debate, Malloy and victims' rights groups have introduced a bill that would make it illegal for anyone who has been the subject of a temporary restraining order to possess a firearm.
"The Judiciary Committee never lacks for big-ticket items, I think because the commission is really at a significant crossroads of issues. We touch on so any areas of substantive law," said Tong. "This year is no exception."
For the third year, the committee is considering a proposal that would permit doctors to legally prescribe lethal doses of medication to patients with less than six months to live. The bill was raised last year, and the year before, in the Public Health Committee. This year, the Judiciary Committee is taking the lead. It's considering language that would amend state statutes and "specify that, with appropriate protections, at the request of a terminally ill patient who is mentally competent, a physician may prescribe a medication that such patient can self-ingest when and if such patient chooses to avoid prolonged suffering and bring about his or her own peaceful death."
Similar proposals to change the law brought large crowds to public hearings in 2013 and 2014, but the matter did not make it to a vote in the House or Senate. While no public hearing has been scheduled yet, Tong expects the issue to be fully discussed. "Any aid-in-dying legislation, I think a lot of people struggle with it, and I can see both sides of the issue," said Tong. "This year it's in Judiciary [Committee], which is where I think it belongs. We will have a good opportunity to have a full discussion of the issue."
Angelo Ziotas, president of the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association, said one of the issues his group is supporting would extend the statute of limitations for people who wish to bring civil lawsuits for injuries that occurred when they are minors. Under the current law, Ziotas said, minors who have been injured and wish to file negligence lawsuits must meet the same statute of limitations as adults.
"We are the only state in the country without a law giving a minor more time to bring a claim," he said. "Essentially, you're asking an infant to bring a lawsuit right away. In some states, the statute of limitations doesn't start tolling until someone is 7 years old. We'd like to see changed."
There are other issues of importance for the state's trial lawyers, Ziotas said. But for now, they are holding off on taking positions. "Right now, the legislature is just getting started," he said.