Representative Anthony Brindisi (D., N.Y.), a trial lawyer by training whose family runs a personal injury firm, has backed Democratic efforts to end qualified immunity protections for police officers, which, if successful, would likely provide a financial boon to his major donors and his family.
Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that protects police officers from civil lawsuits. Officers cannot be held personally liable in such lawsuits unless their actions broke “clearly established” law. However, in the wake of the George Floyd protests, Democrats and some Republicans have called to end qualified immunity entirely to open police officers to civil suits brought by personal injury attorneys.
Supporters of qualified immunity, such as Attorney General William Barr, have argued that removing that immunity will cause police officers to become more skittish about doing their job. Detractors say qualified immunity laws protect officers from liability in cases where such liability should rightly exist. These include cases, compiled by USA Today in May, in which an officer shot a ten-year-old while aiming for a dog, or in which SWAT team members fired gas grenades into the (empty) home of an innocent person.
According to public records, Brindisi received $10,000 in donations in 2020 from the American Association for Justice, a trial lawyer lobby which is pushing to end qualified immunity. House Democrats’ police reform bill H.R. 7120, which Brindisi voted for, would end qualified immunity. The bill would also create a public database of every complaint against any U.S. police officer, regardless of the merit of the complaint.
Brindisi’s father, Louis Brindisi, founded the Brindisi, Murad, & Brindisi Pearlman law firm in Utica, N.Y., which specializes in personal injury services. The congressman worked at his father’s firm after graduating from law school in 2004, and his father and sister, Eva Brandisi Pearlman, are currently listed as attorneys there. Anthony Brindisi himself brought cases against the Oneida County Sheriff’s Department in 2008 and 2005.
“Anthony has not worked with the law firm in any capacity since he was sworn in as a member of Congress,” Luke Jackson, press secretary for Brindisi, told National Review in an email. Jackson also said that Brindisi’s support for H.R. 7120 was not connected to the AAJ donation.
“I don’t want to see qualified immunity eliminated; I do believe, as many liberals and conservatives believe, that there has to be some reform to qualified immunity,” Brindisi said in a July interview on WUTQ radio. “The reason I voted for [H.R. 7120] is that the Senate has a similar bill, [and] I’d like to see the two houses come together to pass something that can be a compromise that can get signed into law.”
Brindisi represents New York’s 22nd district, an upstate, mostly-rural area that has voted for Republicans representatives in most elections since 1983. This year’s House race between Brindisi and former Republican representative Claudia Tenney is rated a “toss up” on the Cook Political Report. Tenney represented the district from 2017-2019 but lost her reelection bid to Brindisi, when a wave of politically-moderate Democrats were elected in districts that President Trump won in 2016.
Brindisi has billed himself as a moderate who is comfortable working with both Democrats and Republicans. The congressman is a co-sponsor of a bill, submitted by Representative Brian Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.), that would “prohibit a jurisdiction that defunds the police from receiving grants” from some federal Economic Development Assistance programs, as well as the Community Development Block Grant Program.
Tenney has called that legislation a “fake bill.”
“I think it’s just an attempt to try to cover the fact that he actually voted to defund the police and he’s trying to make it look like he didn’t,” Tenney said in July.
It’s not clear that the legislation would have a significant impact on cities or municipalities that attempt to “defund the police.” For example, Boston operated on a $3.49 billion budget for the 2020 fiscal year, and in June the city council opted to transfer certain funds away from the police to social services. The Fitzpatrick bill, if passed, might have blocked CDBG funds from going to Boston. However, in 2020 Boston received $17.5 million in funds from that grant, or only half of 1 percent of Boston’s entire budget.