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Savvy senators could resurrect civil unions bill


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POSTED: Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Over the past few weeks, increasing numbers of Hawaii voters have been dismayed to hear state senators offer a series of transparent excuses for failing to bring to the Senate floor for a vote the bill authorizing civil unions for same-sex couples.

First, the Senate claimed that recalling the bill from committee would violate Senate “;procedures.”; By Senate “;procedures,”; they mean Senate Rule 22(2): “;A favorable vote of a majority of the members present at a decision-making meeting duly constituted with a quorum is required to report a matter out of committee.”;

However, Senate Rule 52 (the “;Recall Rule”;) also is a Senate “;procedure.”; The Recall Rule specifically provides that, “;[t]wenty days after a bill has been referred to a committee, the same may be recalled from such committee by the affirmative vote of one-third of the members of the Senate.”;

The Recall Rule has been invoked many times. However, in 2009 senators refused to use the Recall Rule to pull, from the Judiciary Committee, a civil unions bill, which provides necessary and essential protections for same-sex couples.

Second, Senate President Colleen Hanabusa tried to convince senators that if HB444 passes, the Hawaii Supreme Court will hold it unconstitutional because HB444 uses the term “;civil unions”; rather than “;marriage.”; She cited a Connecticut court case (Kerrigan). However, various professors from the University of Hawaii Law School advised the senators that this argument lacks legal merit, because the Connecticut Constitution on which the Kerrigan case is based is different from the Hawaii Constitution. For a thorough discussion of this case by attorneys Jon Van Dyke and Richard Miller, see http://www.olelo.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=25& clip_id=5985&publish_id=&event_id.

Third, proponents were told that the bill would have a better chance of passing if it was amended to make it more distinct from marriage. Proponents created an amendment, which many senators liked, but the Senate refused to consider or vote on the amendment.

Fourth, after the second decking deadline passed, leadership claimed HB444 was dead. However, decking applies only if a bill is amended. HB444 can be passed without amendment until the last day of session. There are many Senate “;procedures”; that could be used to honor the constitution's requirement for equal protection. The Senate president can refer the bill to the Committee of the Whole, appoint additional members to the Judiciary Committee, and waive deadlines. The chair of the Judiciary Committee can waive the bill to floor. Nine or more senators can recall bill. The Senate can even amend or suspend its rules by a majority vote.

The latest illusory promise is that the Senate will pass the bill early next year—in an election year. Who are they kidding? Passing a controversial bill in an election year is as likely as inheriting $28 million through the Internet.

Process should be used to promote justice, not deny it.

Eighteen senators claim to support civil unions. Yet three senators keep them from expressing that support: Sens. Sam Slom, Mike Gabbard and Robert Bunda hold the bill hostage in the Judiciary Committee while every day families headed by same-sex couples suffer the indignity and uncertainty of inequality. The Senate should support equal


Jo-Ann M. Adams, a Honolulu lawyer, is chairwoman of the political strategy committee of the Family Equality Coalition.