Friday, November 24, 2006

SSM: Conscience Wins

Among the quiet fallout from the recess of the Constitutional Convention (ConCon) has been some of the 109 of 200 legislators explaining their reasoning and feelings. They knew when they voted almost certainly to shelve the anti-same-sex marriage amendment that they would rile some voters.

Two state representatives also did their talking in the local papers. They set out the facts and thought process. In effect, they told the let-the-people-vote folks to chill and to look at the big picture.

Rep. Douglas Petersen
(D-Eighth Essex) has his say in the Marblehead Reporter. Apparently aware of the outrage among the initiative petition signers, he wrote, "It should be noted that this vision is not an arbitrary one created by legislators 'who think they know better than their constituents'; it is a vision that embraces the spirit of the Massachusetts constitution, which has consistently expanded civil rights - not diminished them to any particular group."

While it may convince few who would conflate a ballot initiative and town meeting, he did note of a few of the many times legislators evaluated proposals against the larger public good. For one, the 1982 ConCon adjourned without a vote on an initiative to alter state budgeting procedures. He cited five of nine ConCons that adjourned without voting on initiatives. "One of the more recent occasions was in 1990, when the Legislature recessed numerous times, only to finally adjourn without taking a vote on a measure to guarantee the right of reproductive choice in our state constitution."

Peterson had to weigh the anti-SSM for all its worth, not just the effort behind promoting it. As he put it, "In the end, I chose what I believe was the more justifiable of the two constitutional obligations presented to me - namely protecting the minority from any attempt to infringe upon their constitutional civil rights."

Likewise, Rep. Jay Kaufman, (D-Fifteenth Middlesex) wrote of his thinking in the Arlington Advocate. He went right at those pushing the most emotional aspects of what we see at hit-and-run democracy:
Some argued that it was my duty to simply "let the people vote." I believe this line of reasoning misrepresents my responsibilities in this process. The Constitution obligates legislators to exercise judgment on which proposed Constitutional matters are placed before the electorate for a vote. The two-step legislative review prescribed by the Constitution would be meaningless if John Adam's intent had been for the Constitutional Convention to serve simply as a pass-through agency for voter initiatives.

Keeping the proposed amendment alive would have guaranteed ongoing, often ugly and certainly divisive attacks on a minority in our state. It would have guaranteed more of what we have already seen, a nationally-financed campaign attacking same-sex marriage and our homosexual neighbors and relatives in general. It would have advanced the notion that it is OK to create two distinct classes of citizens, those married after 2004 and those who could no longer marry after 2008 if the amendment was adopted.
He pressed a major button for us too with the core judgment that some rights must not be up for plebiscite. As our governor elect noted repeatedly in his campaign, such civil rights of a minority are not fit subjects for popular vote.

As Kaufman wrote:
And it would have perpetuated the idea that putting the rights of a minority to the test of a majority vote by the public made any sense. Almost all of the most important minority rights throughout this country's history have been won, first, in the courts or on the street, and only later written into legislation and embraced by the majority.
His angst may well have been shared by many of the 109 who voted conscience over expediency. Kaufman saw it as an awful choice, but that he felt he no option other than voting to recess. He adds:
I did not take this vote lightly. Standing up to a citizen initiative is serious business and should be reserved for serious occasions. Given all that was at stake, I believe this was one such occasion...To do otherwise would be irresponsible and unethical.
Citizens who advance ballot initiatives are not a tolerant sort in the main. When their amendment or other initiative ends in defeat by adjournment or recess, they don't forgive or forget easily.

Yet, it appears as their passions fade and they see the earth rotates yet, most do get on with life. It appears further that those who vote for public good over passionate projects seem not to lose their seats or influence.

Other petition signers remain self-righteous and embittered. Perhaps someone will pray for their release from those self-imposed bonds.

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