2 Connecticut State Lawmakers Leading Half-Dozen Lawsuits Against COVID Restrictions

Two Republican members of Connecticut's General Assembly have found dual purpose in the fight against COVID-19 restrictions as lawyers and lawmakers, the Associated Press reported.

The politically conservative Doug Dubitsky and Craig Fishbein have become a commonly sought pairing for groups looking to challenge Connecticut's pandemic guidelines, filing roughly a half-dozen lawsuits against the state and some municipalities.

Their arrangement has sparked some criticism from Democrats who say legislators shouldn't lead lawsuits against their own state, but ethics officials who reviewed the situation confirmed that their actions don't breach Connecticut's laws, AP reported. Officials said that as long as their involvement in the state's legislature remains a part-time gig, they are allowed to seek out other jobs on the side.

"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 and Fishbein have seen some procedural and technical victories in the COVID-related lawsuits they've represented but still haven't succeeded in bypassing Governor Ned Lamont's authority to enact executive orders in a public health emergency like the pandemic, AP reported.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

GOP Lawmakers Challenging COVID Restrictions
Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Doug Dubitsky and Craig Fishbein, both politically conservative lawyers and Republican members of the state General Assembly, have 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. Above, Dubitsky smiles during a visit to the Scottish Highland Games on October 10, 2021, in Scotland, Connecticut. Jessica Hill/AP Photo

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 AP 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."

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.

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.

Craig Fishbein
Doug Dubitsky and Craig Fishbein, Republican members of Connecticut’s General Assembly, have found dual purpose in the fight against state COVID-19 restrictions as lawyers and lawmakers. Above, Fishbein holds up a sign after a vote during the final day of session at the state Capitol in Hartford on June 5, 2019. Jessica Hill/AP Photo