In the age of Rachel Dolezal and multiracial marriages, the Connecticut Supreme Court considered a novel case that says the state’s marijuana laws unconstitutionally target Blacks and Hispanics.
HARTFORD, Conn. (CN) — The Connecticut Supreme Court appeared split Friday on whether a white drug dealer has standing to claim the state’s anti-marijuana laws unconstitutionally target minorities.
In 2016, William Hyde Bradley pleaded guilty to selling marijuana after his storage facility was found holding 8.5 pounds of the drug. The 49-year-old was given seven years for the crime, but later received probation. Months later, however, he was again arrested after probation officers found 30 ounces of marijuana in his home.
Bradley, who is white, sued, claiming the underlying statute was unconstitutionally enacted to punish minorities.
Initially the trial court granted Bradley standing because his conviction was likely under the statute, but it disagreed with Bradley’s argument the law had been enacted to discriminate against Blacks and those of Mexican descent.
The state appellate court agreed, adding that Bradley never had standing to make his equal-protection claims since he was neither Black nor of Mexican heritage and since he had not asserted third-party standing.
Standing issues dominated the Connecticut Supreme Court oral arguments on Friday, during which several of the justices offered up a number of hypothetical scenarios.
What if, speculated Chief Justice Richard Robinson, a defendant had a DNA test done, found they were 2% Black, and then self-identified as African-American like Rachel Dolezal. “Would that impart standing?” he asked.
James Ralls, an attorney for the state, sighed at the question from the Black chief justice, pausing before answering: “I think that’s a good point. It’s interesting.”
Ralls noted the underlying statute may in fact be discriminatory, and that Connecticut could soon change the legal status of marijuana, but that standing must be preserved only for those who suffer legal harm. “If that harm is not there, then this court shouldn’t step in and change the law of standing that has been around for decades,” he argued. “You don’t have standing to claim due process or protection rights of other people.”
Justice Steven Ecker chafed at that argument, saying it is “in direct conflict with the rhetoric of the day.” He noted protests from the last few years over racial issues and noted the need for solidarity between races.
“It can’t just be a Black person’s problem or a Hispanic’s problem. It needs to be our problem,” the judge said. Ecker asked whether only a member of a protected group has the right to sue over discriminatory laws, noting it is like a barricade in the middle of a highway. “The person who runs into it doesn’t care how it got there,” he said.
Ralls appreciated the problems with potentially discriminatory laws, but noted, “legally, it would overturn decades and decades of law on standing.”
Other attorneys also found it difficult pinning down the issue of Bradley’s standing. “So under your analysis, basically anytime anyone is prosecuted under any statute, they have the right and standing to bring [litigation] just by being charged?” Justice Maria Kahn asked Fetterman. “That’s almost akin to saying you don’t have to show standing.”
Throughout her arguments, Fetterman argued Bradley had standing even if the statute was not enacted with his group in mind. She cited abortion doctors who had standing to sue over abortion laws, even if they themselves were not receiving the procedure.
Justice Andrew McDonald also likened the situation to a voting rights law enacted to require driver’s licenses. Such a law would likely disproportionately impact minorities, who don’t own cars at the same rate as whites, he said. But if a white person without a license showed up at the polls, they would be injured in the same way, McDonald speculated, later saying the situation reminded him of his time in the state Legislature and the debate between the punishments between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine.
Anti-marijuana laws have been criticized by several civil rights groups for unfairly targeting minorities, and some say the laws themselves stem from racist ideas. In his briefs, Bradley argued that Blacks are four times more likely to be arrested in Connecticut for cannabis offenses than white people, despite whites in the state having a higher rate of usage.
Connecticut is currently considering legislation to legalize marijuana, following the lead of such nearby states as New Jersey.