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TaShun Bowden-Lewis sues over CT chief public defender firing

TaShun Bowden-Lewis takes notes while listening to the Public Defender Services Commission on June 4, 2024, at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford. She is seated next to her attorney Thomas W. Bucci.
Shahrzad Rasekh
CT Mirror
TaShun Bowden-Lewis takes notes while listening to the Public Defender Services Commission on June 4, 2024, at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford. She is seated next to her attorney Thomas W. Bucci.

TaShun Bowden-Lewis, the first Black woman to serve as Connecticut’s chief public defender, filed a federal lawsuit late last week alleging a state commission discriminated against her and wrongfully removed her from the office which is responsible for assigning attorneys to represent defendants in state court.

The lawsuit comes less than a month after the Public Defender Services Commission, the body that appoints the chief public defender and oversees the office’s work, voted to fire Bowden-Lewis following months of political infighting and accusations of workplace misconduct.

As part of the court case, Bowden-Lewis is seeking compensatory damages, including back pay, state benefits and reimbursement for her attorney’s fees.

Bowden-Lewis is also asking the federal court to reinstate her as Connecticut’s chief public defender, a position that would once again place her in charge of the more than 400 employees in the Division of Public Defender Services.

The five-member commission, which is made up of career attorneys and judges, terminated Bowden-Lewis after a contentious public hearing where she faced allegations that she mistreated staff members in the agency and accusations that she improperly instructed her subordinates to access the email accounts of individuals who were critical of her leadership.

But in the federal lawsuit, Bowden-Lewis’s attorneys alleged that the commission members illegally reprimanded her, placed her on paid leave and terminated her on account of her race.

The complaint states that the commission members “acting in concert treated the plaintiff in a racially discriminatory manner.”

“They subjected the plaintiff to adverse disciplinary actions for conduct her Caucasian predecessors in the position of Chief Public Defender had not been likewise disciplined,” the complaint added.

Richard Palmer, the chairman of the Public Defender Services Commission, declined to comment due to the pending lawsuit.

Thomas W. Bucci, Bowden-Lewis’ attorney, also declined to comment this week.

But following her termination in early June, Bucci told The Connecticut Mirror that “no other chief public defender has been treated” like his client.

When Bowden-Lewis was appointed as the state’s chief public defender in June 2022, her hiring was celebrated as groundbreaking for the division, which represents many people of color in state courts.

But her tenure as the chief public defender was quickly interrupted by repeated disputes with the commission and employees in the division.

One of the first public signs of turmoil appeared when all but one of the five members serving on the volunteer Public Defender Services Commission, a politically appointed board, abruptly resigned with little explanation early last year.

Prior to the mass departure, there had been infighting in the division over the commission’s decision to bypass Bowden-Lewis’ preferred list of candidates for a job in Derby in favor of a white woman whom she viewed as less qualified.

Black and brown employees said they saw the move as part of a larger effort to undermine the chief’s goals. Bowden-Lewis was equally concerned about what was described as the “hyper scrutinizing and undermining” of her decisions, according to a letter sent from her attorney to the former commission chair.

Other employees subsequently accused Bowden-Lewis of bullying people who did not agree with her and fostering a work environment where people avoided approaching her in fear of retaliation. She was also criticized for what at least one senior attorney in the division perceived as her fixation on racial diversity and not on “strong lawyering.”

Bowden-Lewis’ lawsuit claims that the commission invented and “concocted” reasons to dismiss her and that the commission members improperly intruded into the day-to-day operations of the division, which was not part of their duties.

“The bringing of the formal charges against the plaintiff constitutes unlawful retaliation on the part of the defendants,” the lawsuit alleged.

This story was originally published by the Connecticut Mirror July 2, 2024

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