Bangs and Whimpers

The Senate Judiciary Committee did it again Friday morning. After having put up a royal fuss about a bill that passed easily in the House, members quickly folded their tents and moved the bill along with maybe a change or two.

This time it was H.225, the bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of buprenorphine. The House had passed it overwhelmingly, but its fate in the Senate seemed uncertain. Now, suddenly, it looks like clear sailing.

The committee didn’t take a formal vote, because technically the bill is in the purview of the Rules Committee. But all five Judiciary members indicated support for H.225 with the addition of a two-year sunset provision. The bill would take effect upon passage and expire on July 1, 2023. Sens. Dick Sears and Joe Benning insisted on the sunset, because they have concerns about how the bill would work in real life.

Which is a bit absurd. The Legislature is always free to revisit any law that isn’t working as intended.

This has been a pattern with Senate Judiciary this spring. Bills that easily passed the House sparked deep concerns in Judiciary… but the concerns were resolved quickly and with little debate.

The committee did it again later Friday morning with H.183, a bill to update sexual assault laws, most crucially in the definition of “consent,” and improve data collection on such crimes. In the end, Judiciary made a few changes in wording and removed a section creating an Intercollegiate Sexual Violence Prevention Council.

Previously, Judiciary had done similar work on H.128, a ban on the so-called “gay panic” defense. This was the debate that featured a lot of farfetched hypotheticals, some unfortunate comments from Sens. Jeanette White and Alice Nitka, and staunch opposition from Benning on one key point: Whether the defense would be banned throughout trial and sentencing, or during trial only. Eventually, the committee approved the bill unanimously with a couple of minor changes.

There was a common thread to Judiciary’s discussions on all three bills: A preoccupation with hypothetical cases and unintended consequences, with little consideration of the actual, real-life harm these bills were meant to address. For example, decriminalizing buprenorphine may have some side-effects — but there’s no doubt that it will save lives. Banning the gay-panic defense might take away one potential defense argument, but there is no question that the defense has resulted in countless travesties of justice.

The confluence of these three bills had prompted complaints from the committee about having to work so hard. “It’s not unusual for the House to put us in a position where we get things that are controversial or tough to deal with,” Sen. Phil Baruth lamented.

Controversial? Tough to deal with? We’re talking about one bill that passed the House 126-19, another that passed 144-1, and a third that sailed through without a recorded vote.

If there is any great controversy about these bills, it seems to exist almost exclusively in the minds of the Senate Judiciary Committee.


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