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Two groups question Patrick, Coakley over bias lawsuit

Letter asks why MCAD retracted its brief in case

It remains a mystery: Why did the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, an agency charged with rooting out bias, introduce and then abruptly move to withdraw a legal brief in a case filed by minority officers?

Now, the NAACP and an organization representing minority police officers are trying to get answers. On Wednesday, they fired off a letter to Governor Deval Patrick and state Attorney General Martha Coakley strongly insinuating that those elected state leaders were behind the MCAD’s abrupt about-face.

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“Within legal circles, it is believed that the Office of the Governor and/or the Office of the Attorney General pressured the MCAD to withdraw its brief,’’ stated the letter, signed by the presidents of both groups. “If either the Office of the Governor or the Office of the Attorney General pressured the MCAD to withdraw its brief, you owe it to the general public and to all police officers who have been discriminated against to be forthright and honest enough to publicly state whatever role, if any, you may have played in causing the MCAD to withdraw its brief.’’

A Patrick spokeswoman said in an e-mail that the MCAD moved to withdraw the brief without consulting the governor’s office. The 47-page brief was filed May 2, less than a week before the Supreme Judicial Court was scheduled to hear arguments on whether the state should be included in a civil rights lawsuit brought by dozens of black and Hispanic police officers against their local departments. The suit contends promotions are based largely on a test that unfairly favors white candidates.

In their suit, the officers argued that the state is responsible for a promotional exam that discriminates against them.

“We care deeply about protecting and promoting the civil rights of the Commonwealth’s residents, and want to see cases like the one in question properly adjudicated,’’ said Patrick spokeswoman Kimberly Haberlin.

Brad Puffer, Coakley’s spokesman, said the attorney general “strongly disputes any suggestion of judicial interference in this case.’’

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“Our office has been a leader in protecting the civil rights of all our citizens,’’ he said. “As this case is currently pending before the SJC we cannot comment any further at this time.’’

MCAD chairman Julian Tynes, who has refused to explain why his agency withdrew the brief, declined to comment Thursday on the letter the minority leaders sent to Patrick and Coakley.

“We may, and I’m going to emphasize may, make a comment later on,’’ Tynes said.

Juan Cofield, president of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP, and Larry Ellison, president of the Massachusetts Association of Law Enforcement Officers, agreed to write the letter last week, after the Globe reported the MCAD’s decision to withdraw its brief.

“We’re trying to get to the bottom of who had this withdrawn,’’ Ellison said. “We’re hoping that [the letter] gets some answers as to who was behind this and why.’’

The officers, who are seeking promotions in seven municipalities including Boston, Lowell, and Springfield, say the state should be sued for administering the civil service exam.

The Patrick administration and Coakley’s office argue that only police departments that employ the officers can be sued for discrimination, not the state.

In its brief, however, the MCAD, whose three members were all appointed by Patrick, held that because the state controls the test it “exercises substantial gatekeeping control over the hiring and promotion of police officers.’’ The state “is liable for the disparate impact,’’ the brief concluded.

Two days after filing the brief, the MCAD sent a letter to the SJC asking to withdraw it, without any explanation.

In their letter, the minority leaders said that briefs by the MCAD carry significant weight with Massachusetts courts because of the agency’s mission to investigate discrimination.

Harold Lichten, the lawyer for the officers, has filed a motion asking the court to deny the MCAD’s request to withdraw the brief. In the motion, Lichten cited state law that says it is a crime to interfere with MCAD legal proceedings.

“An attempt to unilaterally contact officials from the MCAD and intervene on a case in which the state is a defendant seems just as illegal as if a private company did the same thing,’’ Lichten said.

State legislators and legal specialists say it is highly unusual for a public agency to withdraw such a brief without explanation.

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.

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