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Constitutional Questions Will Vex Registrars’ Impeachment

Now that the City has showed us how messy democracy can be when it wants to shove bad public policy down our throats, let’s see how the Court of Common Council fares against the Connecticut Constitution and the Connecticut General Assembly.

The Court of Common Council wants to impeach the three registrars of voters in Hartford for pure ineptitude and lawlessness in the 2014 election.

Expect to see the three Registrars mount an impassioned defense resting on the Connecticut Constitution and state statute. So, even though Hartford’s City Charter may enumerate the power the power of Court of Common Council to impeach an elected official, the registrars are likely to argue otherwise.

“The Constitution of Connecticut leaves little doubt that an impeachment proceeding may be brought and tried only in the General Assembly,” so said Judge Robert H. Arnold in July 2001 in Sampieri v. Haley, 2001 Conn. Cuper. Lexis 2058.

The Allingtown Fire District in West Haven on June 6, 2001 hired an African-American fire chief. The Allingtown Fire District had three fire commissioners, Sampieri (who was caucasian) and Haley and DeLoatch (who were black).

After the hiring of the black fire chief, Sampieri said “There goes the neighborhood.” The two other fire commissioners then hastily scheduled an impeachment hearing for the end of June 2001. They impeached him, and voted Sampieri and his “I’m not a racist” self out of office for misconduct.

Sampieri sued, filing a mandamus and a quo warranto, stating he had the clear legal right to his office. He won. Why? Judge Arnold, take it away:

“Article Ninth § 1 of the Constitution of Connecticut provides: ‘The house of representatives shall have the sole power of impeaching.’ Article Ninth, § 2 of the Constitution of Connecticut provides, in relevant part: ‘All impeachments shall be tried by the senate . . .” Article Ninth, § 3 of the Constitution of Connecticut provides, in relevant part: ‘The governor, and all other executive and judicial officers, shall be liable to impeachment . . .’

“This court does not accept the argument set forth in the defendants’ memorandum of law that the Constitution of Connecticut supports the position that a fire district in West Haven, Connecticut retains the power to impeach a duly elected official of said district.

If that language wasn’t strong enough, here’s : “The answer to the question of the Fire District’s ability to impeach the plaintiff is an unequivocal no.”

So why does Court of Common Council retain the power to impeach the Registrar’s of Voters? I’m not sure it does. I’m curious to hear expensive attorney Ross Garber’s answer. Garber has the most experience of any lawyer I know of in Connecticut with impeachment.

Let’s not rest our entire analysis on one case in West Haven with some crazy fire commissioners. Yet let’s be clear, as best as I can tell, searching the Connecticut law in Lexis Nexis has only given us a handful impeachment cases.

Aside from the Allingtown issue, John Rowland’s mess in 2004, Hartford probate court judge James H. Kinsella’s troubles in 1983 and a 1996 case out of Stamford pitting a former mayor against the town Board of Ethics.

Some of them don’t even reach the issue. For example, in Serrani v. Board of Ethics, 1996 Conn. Super. Lexis 398, after Stamford Mayor Serrani left office, the Board of Ethics found he violated the Municipal Code of Ethics for engaging in a no-bid contract.

The main issue in this case was not a power to impeach, but the court, in dicta, stated:

“Only the city’s legislative body, the Board of Representatives, can impeach an elected official. Charter of the city of Stamford, § 8, C2-90-1.” Judge William B. Lewis did not have to find if the City had the actual power to impeach, because that was not the question before him.

In 1984, Hartford’s troubled probate court judge, James Kinsella, was impeached by a select committee of the House of Representatives. Kinsella challenged the action in Kinsella v. Jaekle, 192 Conn. 704 (1984)

The Connecticut Supreme Court framed Kinsella’s first of three questions as “Does the legislature have exclusive jurisdiction over impeachment in this case so as to warrant dismissal of the complaint by the Superior Court for lack of subject matter jurisdiction?”

The Court held “that under the circumstances of this case the legislature does have exclusive jurisdiction” over the impeachment. Why? Our friend Article 9, §2 of the Connecticut Constitution.

It requires that “all impeachments shall be tried by the senate. The constitution leaves no doubt but that impeachment proceedings may be brought and tried only in the General Assembly.”

Earlier cases explore the impeachability of probate judges, and discuss Article Ninth, Section Three of the state Constitution, which holds the governor, and all other executive and judicial officers, shall be liable to impeachment. The question, then, is a registrar an executive or judicial officer?

In a curious mixture, state statute governs the registrar’s conduct, but local elections seat them. Is a registrar like a judge of probate? And is the Court of Common Council like a board of fire commissioners?

The Supreme Court hashed out impeachment in Gov. John Rowland’s debacle, affirming Article Ninth of the Connecticut Constitution gave the General Assembly the power to impeach.

As part of this process, Rowland tried to quash a subpoena forcing him to testify before a select committee of impeachment from the House of Representatives. Rowland’s case gave us two cases

Rowland’s buddy Justice William “Taco” Sullivan dissented along with Justice Peter Zarella, claiming that the subpoena was premature. A majority of the CT Supremes said the legislature’s subpoena had power to compel Rowland’s testimony.

Soon after, Rowland resigned. Sadly, Hartford Democratic Registrar of Voters Olga Vazquez won’t resign anytime.

Nor should we expect the General Assembly to come to the Common Council’s rescue. Mayor Pedro Segarra and his Council majority have angered members of the state delegation, and they don’t need him. Nor does the Governor, who is most likely backing his aide Luke Bronin as Hartford’s next mayor.

How many state officials stood alongside the Mayor Charlatan and his cronies this week at the stadium groundbreaking? Exactly zero. Why? Because Segarra bit them hard back in June with the first “done deal” announcement.

Without drawing any solid conclusions, we can be certain if Court of Common Council impeaches the registrars, this ends up in the State Supreme Court. And more importantly, it will be November 2016 before this mess is sorted out, and we will have a new election for Registrars.

 

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