HARTFORD, Conn. -- Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, a pair of politically conservative lawyers has become the go-to team for groups seeking to sue Connecticut over the school mask mandate, restrictions on bars and restaurants, and other aspects of the governor's emergency executive orders.
The two men, Doug Dubitsky and Craig Fishbein, are also Republican members of the state General Assembly. That arrangement has brought criticism from some Democrats, but ethics officials who have reviewed it say it doesn't violate state laws. As long as being a legislator is part-time work in Connecticut, they say, officials are entitled to have other jobs to pay their bills.
“It’s just an odd one to sue the state you represent, that you’re duly elected to represent,” said House Speaker Matt Ritter, a Democrat from Hartford and a private attorney. “I wouldn’t change the statute. I just personally would not sue the state of Connecticut as a lawyer, as a legislator.”
Dubitsky’s private and public roles appeared to overlap last month when a woman testifying before the legislature’s Conservative Caucus accused him of chastising her because she and fellow parents didn’t “come up with $100,000” to hire his law firm to challenge a vaccination mandate for University of Connecticut students.
Dubitsky, who declined to discuss the woman's claim, said in an interview with The Associated Press that he and Fishbein are doing nothing wrong and are taking on cases that other lawyers would avoid because of fears about political repercussions.
“There are tons of attorneys out there, but people are scared. Attorneys are scared. Everybody’s scared to say anything more, to say the wrong thing or to poke their head up lest they be chopped off,” he said. “And there aren’t all that many of us out there who are willing to stand up for what’s right.”
The two men, who've argued from the House floor about some of the same issues they're suing over, have had some mostly procedural and technical victories in the roughly half dozen lawsuits they filed against the state and some municipalities. But ultimately they haven't overruled the authority of Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, to issue executive orders during a public health emergency.
It's not unheard of for state legislators to sue their own governor and state agencies over pandemic-related issues. Most cases, however, have not involved legislators who are also private attorneys getting paid by clients to sue the state. A spokesperson for the National Conference of State Legislatures said it can be difficult to track how many legislatures, if any, might consider that to be a conflict of interest.
After a review requested by an attorney for the House Republican caucus, the Connecticut Office of State Ethics issued an informal opinion in July 2020. It found that it is permissible for a legislator, in their capacity as a private attorney, to sue the state, challenging the constitutionality of some of the governor’s executive orders.
Peter Lewandowski, executive director of the Connecticut Office of State Ethics, said the lawsuits do not represent ethical violations for part-time legislators under the state's Code of Ethics so long as they don’t misuse their elected position, such as promising later on to change laws for a client.
“There are guardrails already in place,” he said. However, if the legislature decides one day to become a full-time body, Lewandowski said, “That obviously changes things.”
Dubitsky lives in Chaplin and represents mostly rural communities in eastern Connecticut. He has spent much of his legal career working agricultural cases, noting his “bread and butter” legal work has been representing horse farms. Fishbein lives in Wallingford and lists family law, personal injury, probate and land use matters as the areas of his practice on his website.
Lately, Dubitsky and Fishbein have sued the governor and police departments on behalf of the gun-rights group Connecticut Citizens Defense League, questioning the constitutionality of pandemic-related delays in fingerprinting needed for gun purchases. They’ve also challenged Lamont’s orders on behalf of landlords, restaurant and bar owners, and a woman who was fined for violating the state’s now-defunct pandemic travel ban. Additionally, they represented the Connecticut Freedom Alliance, which unsuccessfully challenged the governor’s school mask mandate. The group is currently appealing the decision.
Dubitsky said these potential clients aren’t seeking out him and Fishbein because of their legislative positions, noting they’re in the minority party and neither has a leadership role. “We’re about as low as you can get,” he said. Fishbein, who referred questions about the lawsuits to Dubitsky, is the top Republican House member of the Judiciary Committee.
Dubitsky said he receives calls daily from potential clients including some “frantic about how their lives are being destroyed by the governor’s orders," especially his recent one requiring state employees and other workers to get vaccinated or regularly tested.
While Dubitsky would not discuss how much they've been paid, he said he and Fishbein have “greatly discounted” their rates for some clients and provided free legal help for others.
“Obviously we do this for a living so we need to get paid,” he acknowledged.