With Connecticut’s state government stumbling along with its usual insolvency and tax hunger, establishing a civil rights division in the attorney general's office does not rank high among Connecticut's needs, despite Atty. Gen. William Tong's advocacy of it.
After all, the era of the systemic violation of basic civil rights of broad classes of people -- racial, ethnic, and religious -- is long gone, even if there always will be individual cases of illegal conduct by employers, landlords, and businesses. The state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities already has jurisdiction over such cases and many lawyers in private practice are always ready to represent the truly oppressed on a contingency basis in lawsuits for financial damages.
Tong seems to be seeking the authorization of statute to apply the weight of state government to the increasing number of controversies where civil rights are in conflict. He already has expressed support for an ordinance in Hartford and proposed legislation to regulate what anti-abortion "pregnancy centers" can tell potential clients, though such facilities are not licensed medical providers but instead mainly exercise freedom of speech, if sometimes advocates of abortion consider them deceptive.
Of course, advocates of abortion have free-speech rights too, but with such ordinances and legislation they seek to silence their adversaries. This silencing is considered politically correct.
Similar controversies are raging in academia, where disagreeable opinion is labeled "hate speech" so it might be obstructed or prohibited. In such controversies at public colleges would Tong's civil rights division intervene to maintain the principle that the First Amendment protects even hateful expression, or would it favor the censors and validate the purported right not to be offended in "safe spaces"?
How about the controversies over transsexuality? Would a civil rights division favor the right of men who want to be women to use women's restrooms, or would it favor the longstanding right of sexual privacy? Would a civil rights division favor the right of men who want to be women to compete in women's athletic events at public schools? Or would it favor the longstanding right of women to have their own events, recognizing the natural athletic advantages of men?
Where would a civil rights division stand on gun rights? It is not generally noticed, but the Declaration of Rights in Connecticut's Constitution is more explicit than the Bill of Rights in the national Constitution in declaring the right to bear arms to be an individual right: "Every citizen has a right to bear arms in defense of himself and the state." (Nothing there requiring membership in a militia.) Yet the attorney general advocates more restrictions on gun ownership.
The primary task of the attorney general's office is to provide advice and representation to state agencies, but state government often is accused of violating the civil rights of its own employees. In such disputes should the attorney general's office really be representing both sides? Of course the internal operations of state government already provide precious little management and defense of the public interest, and Tong long has been allied with the state employee unions, which pretty much control the government workplace.
It's not hard to guess where a civil rights division under Tong would stand in these controversies. Indeed, such a division might be a great mechanism for politically correct posturing by an attorney general pursuing higher office through the Democratic Party.
Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.