Tag Archives: Senate Judiciary Committee

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.

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Foxes Establish Henhouse Access Rules

Here’s another sign that Vermont’s Founding Fathers may have been drunk when they wrote our Constitution. Which, among other flaws, appears to give the Legislature sole authority over its own ethics.

Today, the Senate Rules Committee showed why that’s such a bad idea. While the Judiciary Committee has been busily slashing a proposed Ethics Commission into a glorified filing cabinet, the Rules Committee has been developing a parallel process for its own members.

Today, the Rules Committee adopted an ethics process for the Senate. And according to Seven Days’ Nancy Remsen, the Senate ethics process is designed, first and foremost, to ensure that its members are protected from public embarrassment. (To clarify: she didn’t say that, I did. But her outline of the procedure allows no other interpretation.)

As I’ve written before, the House Ethics Panel is a sorry-ass excuse for a watchdog. The Senate ethics panel won’t be any better, and may be significantly worse.

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Gun owners lose a skirmish, win the war

Pro wrestling, for whatever you might think of its artistic merits, has some of the most delicious vocabulary you can find.

Today’s entries are “work” and “shoot.” A work is a fake fight meant to look absolutely real to the audience. A shoot is a rare occasion when the confrontation actually is real. (Wrestlers are friends and coworkers behind the scenes, but tempers can run high in a testosterone-fueled industry based on [scripted] physical altercations.)

Cut to a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning, as reported by VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld. Ed Cutler of Gun Owners of Vermont is testifying,when he suddenly draws the ire of committee chair Dick Sears. Hirschfeld offers a lengthy account of the affair, which is a fun read; here’s the trigger moment, when Cutler bemoans the annual introduction of gun legislation.

Ed Cutler and Dick Sears, with the corpse of S.31. Not exactly as illustrated.

Ed Cutler and Dick Sears, with the corpse of S.31. Not exactly as illustrated.

“The problem, and you guys, you’ve been thinking about … doing this for years now, trying to figure out some way to do this,” Cutler said.

Sears chuckled.

“How do you know this,” Sears asked.

“Because you keep putting this bill in,” Cutler said.

It was at this moment that Sears’ face began to redden.

“What? Now wait a minute. I keep putting this bill in? Ed! Ed! I have never introduced a gun bill. Ever!”

Sears’ anger continued for quite a while; at one point Cutler’s hands began to shake.

Eventually the moment passed, and after the hearing, the two men shared a hearty handshake.

Bringing us to the question: work or shoot?

Well, I don’t actually think the confrontation was staged — a pretend show of prickly independence by a veteran lawmaker. But the “prickly independence” itself? That’s a work.

These guys are on the same side. Sears said so himself. And if you have any doubts about that, the Burlington Free Press is reporting this statement from Sears regarding the gun bill:

“S.31 is not on the table,” said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Quite frankly, it’s dead.”

It might have been a few uncomfortable minutes for Ed Cutler, but in the end it was just a dominance display by one of the Senate’s leading cocks. And in the end, the two men run in the same pack.

Here’s a completely unsurprising bit of news

According to the Valley News, Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell is waving the white flag on legislation that would expand background checks for gun purchases. Campbell is the chief sponsor of the gun bill; he promises to continue fighting for two other provisions: one would create a state crime for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, the other would restrict access to guns for those declared mentally ill by a court.

The background check provision had been the chief battleground — although now that it’s seemingly off the table, the Orange Vest Brigade is stepping up its attacks on the other two items.

The news is unsurprising because (a) Senate Judiciary Committee panjandrum Dick Sears said earlier this week that the background-check provision would not pass his committee, and (b) I don’t believe Campbell ever intended the bill to pass.

Call me cynical, but I’ve seen too much of John Campbell to believe he was ever serious about background checks. He’s never been visibly pro-gun regulation, he never stakes out politically risky positions, and he rarely takes the lead role on any legislation.

I’d go so far as to speculate that he made himself lead sponsor so he could pull the bill when it became politically expedient.

In vowing to fight on for the rest of the bill, Campbell portrayed himself as a Profile In Courage:

“I’ve been told that my political career’s over because of this, and I’m more than happy to deal with that, but that’s how important it is.”

Good God, what a blowhard. His political career will survive this just fine. For one thing, he represents a completely safe Democratic district; he’ll be a Senator as long as he wants to be. For another, the two remaining provisions simply aren’t that big a deal. Nobody’s going to do an over-the-top charge into No Man’s Land for those two items.

He’s talking tough right now, but I suspect that Campbell has another white flag in his back pocket, ready to wave at the proper time.

Shocker: Gun bill “hits snag”

As VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld reports, the bill that would expand background checks for gun sales “has hit a major snag.”

The snag’s name is Judiciary Committee chair Dick Sears, a.k.a. The Human Snag.

“I don’t believe that the background check portion of the bill has the votes in this committee to pass out of this committee,” Sears said Tuesday.

That’s a nicely passive-aggressive way of putting it. Sears is opposed to the background check portion, and nothing gets through his committee without his consent. I dare say if Sears was the only member of the committee opposed, it still wouldn’t get through.

Hirschfeld notes that it’s still “theoretically” possible that the provision could be passed through some other committee (I’d suggest Agriculture, just for sh*ts and giggles). But the Senate is notoriously deferential to its senior members, and nobody demands more deference than good old Dick.

No surprise anyway. The background check debate was a shadow play from the start. The bill had no chance, given the loud and well-organized opposition of the gun-rights community. Like the Allied soldiers at Gallipoli, it wasn’t a question of whether this bill would die on the beach. The question was, which beach would it die on.

Background check bill, welcome to Sears Beach.

Dick Sears moves the target

Interesting piece by the Associated Press’ Dave Gram (now serving as the Burlington Free Press’ de facto Statehouse Bureau) about legislative consideration of the state’s troubled sex offender registry. 

As you may recall, state law requires that the registry pass a “clean audit” before offenders’ addresses can be posted online. And the registry has failed two audits. The most recent, issued last summer, found “critical errors” in 11 percent of cases.

Not good.

But maybe, just maybe good enough for Dick Sears, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and a man determined to get those addresses online. He has said there should be a zero percent error rate on the fundamentals, such as whether an individual should be on the registry in the first place. He said so again last Friday, according to Gram.

But he told a different story at a Judiciary Committee meeting on January 8:

“You can’t keep waiting for a positive audit, without defining what a positive audit is. If we were to define (the error rate), it would probably be 10 percent,” Sears said, according to a recording of the session.

Defender General Matthew Valerio interjected, “Or 5, or 2.”

Sears added, “Or 5 or 2 or 1 (percent).”

That first statement, quickly amended, is pretty damn alarming. He redefined “a positive audit” as reporting a 10 percent error rate? 


While he immediately parroted Valerio’s words, his original statement is still hanging out there: “a positive audit… would probably be 10 percent.”

Sears then acknowledged that perfection might be impossible to attain: “Human beings enter the information.”

He’s right, of course. The problem is, posting the addresses of people labeled as sex offenders is a huge deal with potentially massive consequences. What if a person is wrongly labeled? What if an offender moves frequently, as is often the case, and an old address stays on the list? How about the new resident at that address?

Sears is dead set on getting those addresses online. And it sounds like he’s lowering his standards in order to achieve his goal. Let’s hope we don’t see a bill emerging from his committee that redefines a “clean audit” as an error rate of 10 percent or less.

Postscript. This story is one small sign of the diminishment of our Statehouse press corps. The key event occurred almost three weeks ago, and was not reported at the time. Gram retrieved the Sears comments from the official recording of the January 8 hearing.

As far as can be told, no reporters actually attended the hearing. Now, hearings go on every day, and Gov. Shumlin was inaugurated on January 8. Under the circumstances, it’s not surprising that no reporters attended the committee hearing. But it’s an indication of how thin our Statehouse coverage is, and how many stories go unreported that are well worth our time and attention.