The 2014 Connecticut General Assembly session is over, and while much of the attention in the closing days was on the state budget, lawmakers took final action on a number of measures that are of specific interest to the legal community.
Legislative action to bar chimp attack victim Charla Nash from suing the state, to declare horses as nonvicious animals in order to protect the equine industry from lawsuits, and to approve reforms of the state’s guardian ad litem system have been well-chronicled. But here are some of the issues that receive a little less attention.
COURT FEES FOR LEGAL AID
Status: Approved as part of budget implementer bill.
Background: Historically, the state’s legal aid agencies have received most of their funding from interest on lawyers’ trust fund accounts. But when the recession hit, IOLTA proceeds plummeted from a high of $24 million to barely $2 million last year. To help cover the difference, lawmakers in 2009 and again in 2012 approved increases in various court filing fees, with extra revenue going to agencies such as Greater Hartford Legal Aid, New Haven Legal Assistance Association and Statewide Legal Services. With the latest round of increases set to expire in 2015, Gov. Dannel Malloy proposed making the higher court filing fees a permanent source of revenue for legal aid groups. Legal aid leaders said if the higher court fees weren’t extended, agencies would have to enact layoffs and service cutbacks.
Bill Summary: The Connecticut Bar Foundation expects to distribute about $15.7 million to legal aid offices statewide this year, including about $12 million from the court filing fees. Under the recently approved bill, legal aid funding will increase statewide by an estimated $1.6 million in fiscal year 2015. There will be a $6.3 million in fiscal year 2016. The extra money is coming out of the Judicial Branch budget, which has been receiving 30 percent of the proceeds from the higher filing fees. That number will drop to 5 percent, with the money going to technology improvements.
JUDICIAL PENSION REFORM
Status: Approved by House and Senate.
Background: As lawmakers discussed Gov. Malloy’s 16 recent Superior Court nominees, they noted that several of the lawyers were in their 60s, including two in their late 60s. Some legislators voiced concern that these judges would serve only a few years before the mandatory retirement age of 70. At that point, they would be eligible for annual pensions equal to two-thirds of their judicial salaries, meaning they would get about $103,000 a year. A number of lawmakers said the state simply couldn’t afford to be paying $100,000-plus annual pensions to judges who had worked only a few years.
Bill Summary: Judges, family support magistrates and workers’ compensation commissioners who begin their service after July 1 must now serve for 10 years in order to receive full pension. Those serving less than 10 years will receive annual pensions based on a sliding scale, with those who serve eight or nine years receiving significantly more than those serving two or three. The 10-year requirement for a full pension brings judges in line with other state employees.
NARCAN LAWSUIT IMMUNITY
Status: Approved unanimously by both the House and Senate.
Background: With the death of Academy Award-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman of a heroin overdose in February, and a 48 percent increase of heroin-related deaths in Connecticut in 2013 from the year before, Connecticut lawmakers were urged to encourage people to use naloxone, or Narcan, an antidote which counters the effects of a drug overdose. But many people, including first responders, expressed concerns they might face wrongful death or personal injury lawsuits if they used the antidote on a drug user and the person died or sustained permanent damage.
Bill Summary: The bill, which provides immunity to anyone who administers treatment for a drug overdose, was called “one of the most important pieces of legislation this session” by Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Commissioner Patricia Rehmer. The law not only protects private citizens from liability in using the drug, but it also enables police officers to carry and administer the antidote as well.
Status: No full vote in either House or Senate.
Background: Lawmakers have been looking at ways to update the 40-year-old alimony section of the marriage dissolution law for a couple of years. There was a renewed push during this legislative session. Proponent cited several reasons to update the bill: people typically marry later in life; marriages are not as long as they used to be; and many families have more complicated asset portfolios than they did decades ago. And unlike the majority of marriage dissolutions 40 years ago, when more men were the only wage earner, it is increasingly common for divorces to occur between two wage-earning spouses, adding to the debate over who should pay what when the marriage ends. But opponents of reform have argued that adding guidelines for judges who might reduce alimony could end up hurting women in divorce cases.
Bill Summary: The Law Revision Committee considered several amendments regarding requests to modify or terminate alimony. One of those changes called for a process to have alimony awards terminated or reduced if the party paying alimony could prove the former spouse was living with someone else in a “marriage-like relationship.” Concerns over how that burden would be met prevented the bill from going to a vote in either House or Senate.
DRUG-FREE ZONE SHRINKAGE
Status: Defeated 17-11 in Education Committee.
Background: During the crack epidemic of the 1980s, the state enhanced penalties for drug possession and drug trafficking within 1,000 feet of schools and day care facilities. In the 1990s, the zones were expanded to 1,500 feet and public housing complexes were included. Drug defendants face an extra three years on their prison sentence if convicted of the extra charge. But in recent years, some lawmakers and criminal justice advocates have noted that nearly every part of Connecticut’s biggest cities are within 1,500 feet of the public facilities mentioned in the law. They say the law then becomes discriminatory, because urban dwellers—many of whom are minorities—are more likely to received enhanced sentences for drug crimes.
Bill Summary: The defeated legislation would have reduced the size of the drug-free zones from 1,500 to 200 feet. Lawmakers opposed to shrinking the zones were concerned about what kind of message it would send to both students and drug dealers. They also said the law was working as intended in the state’s many suburban and rural towns.
PATENT TROLL PROTECTION
Status: Approved by the Senate. Not voted on by the House.
Background: Patent law is normally enforced by federal authorities, and the recent focus has been on patent trolls, also known as patent assertion entities. PAEs are people or companies who enforce patent rights against accused infringers in an attempt to collect licensing fees, but who do not manufacture products or supply services based on the patents in question. Businesses both large and small have complained about the tactics of PAEs, which often send letters demanding hefty payments to avoid lawsuits.
Bill Summary: The Connecticut legislation would have created patent troll relief on the state level by prohibiting anyone from making a bad-faith claim or assertion of patent infringement. The bill would have provided judges guidance in what to look for in determining whether a claim was make in bath faith. The measure would have given the troll’s target—that is, recipients of “demand letters”—the right to file a civil action seeking relief, including attorney fees. And the bill also would have allowed the state attorney general to file an independent enforcement action. Lastly, the bill exempts from these provisions patent owners who are using their patents in connection with the production, manufacturing, processing, or delivery of products or materials.
Legislative leaders said there wasn’t necessarily opposition to the bill, but that there was a general feeling among some House members that it was too complicated a topic to handle in a short legislative session with other more pressing priorities.
REVENGE PORN PENALTIES
Status: Approved by the Senate. Not taken up by the House.
Background: The Web is full of pornography websites, some of which reportedly feature photos of nude women posted by their former spouses or partners as a form of retribution. Last year, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that makes it a misdemeanor for someone to take explicit pictures of another, and then disseminate those images without permission. Since then, nearly two dozen other states have considered similar laws or changes to existing antivoyeurism laws.
Bill Summary: “An Act Concerning Unlawful Dissemination Of An Intimate Image Of Another Person” would have made it a class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail, for anyone who shared an intimate “photograph, film videotape or other recorded image” of another person. For the purpose of the proposed statute, an intimate image is one that depicts “the genitals, pubic area or buttocks of such other person, or the breast of such other person who is female with less than a fully opaque covering of any portions of such breast below the top of the nipple.”
Nevertheless, the bill’s opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, said the definition is not precise enough and that it raises First Amendment issues. They said they could support a revised version next year.•