Responsible legislators begin to coalesce

This legislative session in Concord has been one of the strangest in the memory of longtime observers of New Hampshire government. Those, like me, who read every bill title as part of our jobs have been mystified by some of the proposals filed. Bills to nullify Supreme Court decisions, impeach judges or marital masters, ignore federal legislation and reverse much of the social progress that has been made over the years seem extreme and, frankly, often nutty. What is disconcerting to observers is that some of the extreme and suspect proposals have been receiving favorable committee votes and even serious consideration on the floor of the House.
Recently, however, signs show that cooler heads are realizing that a coalition of responsible Republicans joining with the Democratic minority can defeat inappropriate bills.In a column published in the New Hampshire Sunday News on Feb. 27, Charles Douglas III, former New Hampshire Supreme Court justice and congressman, wrote a piece entitled, “Time to Revisit Our Constitutions.” In that piece, he recommended the reading of both the federal and state constitutions to legislators making some of these proposals, the unstated assumption being that some of the legislative proposals overstepped constitutional limits or simply ignored the state or federal constitutions.As Douglas stated, “While all three branches of government must consider what is, or is not, constitutional, one branch is the interpreter of the document’s meaning: the judiciary. Its role was set forth in 1818 with the decision in the case of Merrill v. Sherburne, which held that after a case had been decided the Legislature couldn’t change it.”Another telling statement on the House floor was that of Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, a longtime conservative legislator who opposed a resolution that would basically allow the state to nullify any act of Congress legislators think violates its powers under the U.S. Constitution. The resolution, sponsored by Rep. Daniel Itse — who has sponsored many of the controversial bills before the House — brought a response from Kurk who said the points in the resolution belong in a published tract, like Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” not in a resolution on which theHouse wants the State Senate to concur.Bills like this have been defeated in prior sessions. This time, however, people actually took the resolution seriously and voted for it.On substantive legislation, responsible legislators found their voices in defeating a bill that would repeal mandatory kindergarten, something New Hampshire achieved only recently, as the last state in the nation to do so. The proposal to repeal was defeated soundly.Newspapers as varied as the New Hampshire Union Leader and Concord Monitor have cautioned legislators about some of these bills, which indicates how extreme much of it is.Finally, Rep. Shawn Jasper, the deputy majority leader, has split from some of the more conservative elements in his party, and has opposed some of the legislation, including a bill sponsored by Rep. Gregory Sorg, R-Easton, which would limit college student voting, notwithstanding contrary federal court opinions establishing the rights of students to vote in the towns where they attend college under certain circumstances as a constitutional right.Sorg, like Itse, has sponsored a number of the bills that have raised eyebrows. Jasper rightly recognizes the validity of court decisions that interpret the constitution, unlike some of the bill sponsors.Hopefully, responsible legislators who undoubtedly are in the majority in the House will not be cowed by the presumed right-wing surge and will reject patently unconstitutional or just plain illegal or foolish bills, as well as those that would reverse much of the progress that New Hampshire has made over the last decades, largely through a consensus of representatives from both parties and voters of all persuasions.If the House does not, assumedly the Senate will reject much of this stuff, and if it somehow makes it through the Senate, the governor will veto it, and there will be sufficient votes to uphold the veto.While no governor likes to veto a lot of legislation, John Lynch may find it necessary in order to fulfill the promise he made in his inaugural address when he urged lawmakers not to wreck what has made New Hampshire such a special state. Maybe he should order big stamps that say: “VETO – UNCONSTITUTIONAL,” “VETO – ILLEGAL,” and “VETO – DUMB BILL” rather than waste a lot of time writing veto messages.Brad Cook is a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups. He also serves as secretary of the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire.