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.
Break out the tiny violins for Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Sears, who’s just getting run ragged because the House has passsed sooooo many law and justice related bills.
After just a few minutes of discussion around the best language to use to redefine consent in Vermont, Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, trailed off mid-sentence, “to be honest with you, I’m fried,” he said.
My first reaction was “Aww, poor baby.” But given the quality of Judiciary’s work lately, it might be best if they simply shut down for the year. The panel’s recent actions have made them worthy ofThe Kids in the Hall Award for Best Ensemble Performance in a Comedy Series.
Sears’ comment was reported by VTDigger’s Ellie French on Friday evening, shortly after I’d closed the books on the first ever Veepie Awards for Outstanding Stupidity on Public Display. The context was Judiciary’s struggles over H.183, which would enact several steps aimed at better enforcement of sexual violence.
The bill is such a tough nut to crack that the committee is threatening to basically gut it. Sen. Phil Baruth complained that “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.”
Yeah, it was so controversial that it passed the House on a voice vote. Sheesh.
At the end of it all, the final vote was a formality.
On Thursday morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a very brief session on H.128, the bill that would ban the so-called “gay panic” defense in criminal trials. You know, the bill that passed the House 144 to one?
After many hearings full of farfetched hypotheticals and occasional racist-adjacent argumentation, the committee voted unanimously to send the bill to the Senate floor.
So, a victory that shouldn’t have been so difficult to achieve. But in Senate committees with five members, one or two can really gum up the works.
The Thursday hearing was brief. There were two votes. The first was on an amendment to H.128 that would bar the defense at all phases of a criminal proceeding. The unamended version applied the ban only to the trial phase, still allowing for use of the defense at sentencing.
The amendment passed on a 3-2 vote, Sens. Joe Benning and Jeanette White voting “no.” Then the committee held a vote on the bill as amended, and that vote was unanimous.
The bill will almost certainly clear the full Senate with no trouble. But the committee dragged this out in a way that was hurtful to many. (Likely including Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, a member of the affected community.)
Break out the tiny violins for Sen. Jeanette White, who’s had a rough week and change. Her inflammatory comments at an April 2 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee went viral, and prompted an avalanche of critical emails and voice mails. One week later, she opened another committee hearing by reading a written statement that hit all the notes in the fakey bullshit “apology” playbook.
Yeah, it’s a shitshow. Strap in.
The committee was discussing H.128, a bill to ban the so-called “gay panic” defense, in which a defendant argues that their crime was excusable because of the gender identity of the victim. The argument has led to acquittals, convictions on lesser charges, and/or greatly reduced sentences – or should I simply say “gross miscarriages of justice.” The bill passed the House on a 144 to 1 vote. (For those keeping score at home, the only “No” vote came from Republican Rodney Graham.)
One hundred forty four. To one. Don’t forget that.
(At this point I’d like to mention the shining star of this clusterfuck: First-term Rep. Taylor Small, the bill’s co-sponsor. On April 9, she gave Senate Judiciary a clear, concise argument in favor of H.128, and did so in an unwaveringly respectful tone. And she may have actually swayed the outcome of the committee’s vote.)
The bill has run into trouble in Senate Judiciary, with two of its five members speaking against it and one — Alice Nitka — never uttering a word in committee deliberations. One opponent is Republican Joe Benning, a defense attorney by trade. He’s fine with a ban on the “gay panic” defense duringcriminal trials, but he wants it to be in play during the sentencing process. Not that he approves of the tactic; he’s just opposed to any limit on defense arguments at sentencing.
(I’d like to get one thing on the record here. Benning may oppose the ban, but the American Bar Association passed a resolutioneight years ago urging “federal, tribal, state, local and territorial governments to take legislative action to curtail the availability and effectiveness of the ‘gay panic’ and ‘trans panic’ defenses.” So his own profession’s largest organization doesn’t share his concern.)
The other opponent is Windham County Democrat Jeanette White. Here’s where things went off the rails.
Democratic Lt. Gov. candidate Molly Gray kicked off the new week with an Endorse-O-Rama on the Statehouse lawn. She’s won the backing of 15 Democratic/Progressive Senators, including Senate Majority Leader (and President Pro Tem-in-waiting) Becca Balint.
Which is great. But it means she didn’t get endorsed by eight members of the majority caucus. Not so good.
The abstainers include fully half of Chittenden County’s delegation: unsuccessful Lite-Gov candidates slash grudge-nurturers Tim Ashe and Debbie Ingram plus Michael Sirotkin. The rest include some of the most senior and most centrist of Senators: Bobby Starr, John Rodgers, Alice Nitka and Jeanette White.
The final absentee is the most surprising: Prog/Dem Anthony Pollina. I’ve tried to reach him, and will update this post if/when he returns my call.
The roster of Senate abstainers is not a good look. But it has more to do with the foibles of Vermont’s Worst Deliberative Body than it has to do with the merits or demerits of Young Ms. Gray.
Yet another slate of endorsements graces my inbox today. This time, from Vermont Conservation Voters, the nonprofit organization that lobbies the Legislature and educates voters on its environmental priorities.
VCV’s list focused on contested primaries in the House and Senate, “looking for candidates with demonstrated leadership on environmental issues,” according to VCV political director Lauren Hierl.
My cynical eye immediately turned to the absences on the list, and there are a couple of notable ones.
The group is not endorsing incumbent Democratic Senators Phil Baruth and Alice Nitka.
I welcome Chris Pearson’s entry into the race for State Senate from Chittenden County. The Progressive state rep is the Progs’ sharpest policy voice in the House, and he should be a formidable candidate for Senate.
For those just joining us, the Chittenden County district elects six Senators, and it’s usually a free ride for incumbents. This time, two of the six seats will be voluntarily vacated; David Zuckerman is running for Lite-Gov, and Helen Riehle (appointed to fill out Diane Snelling’s term) is not running for a full term.
The openings are sure to attract a strong Democratic field, while Republicans are desperately searching for someone who might retain Snelling’s position. Searching in vain, methinks.
But the race on the left will be lively. It’ll be interesting to see how Pearson will fare in fundraising — I suspect he’ll do quite well. He’ll certainly have better name recognition than the Democratic non-incumbents.
And should he win, there is the potential for a real shift in Senatorial power.