Legislature needs
shot of democracy


A Senate committee is considering changing legislative rules to disallow a single committee chairperson to kill a bill being considered by a joint House-Senate conference.

STATE legislators made a feeble attempt last year to reduce the dictatorial authority of their committee chairpersons. That rule change left committee heads the power to block bills in more than half the joint conferences of senators and representatives considering similar bills that have passed both chambers. Reform remains badly needed to inject democracy into the legislative process.

The rule adopted last year allows a majority of House and Senate chairpersons of standing committees sitting in such conferences to overrule a single committee chairperson's veto. The problem is that more than half of the bills that are sent to conference so differences can be worked out between Senate and House versions have only two committee chairpersons; a single chairperson cannot overrule another's decision to kill a bill.

It should occur to the legislators that the best way to deal with this problem is to give each member of the conference a vote, and then take a count, as it's done in Congress and most other democratic systems. "How can a healthy democratic process exist under these conditions?" asks Laure Dillon, executive director of the Hawaii Clean Elections Coalition.

Sen. Colleen Hanabusa, Judiciary Committee chairwoman, and Senate Vice President Donna Kim heard testimony this week on a proposal to deny committee chairpersons the power to block a bill at joint House-Senate conferences. Hanabusa said her committee will continue to study the issue.

Hanabusa's committee should look also at a larger problem -- the ability of chairpersons to block a bill at the committee level. That is where most of the legislative suffocation takes place.

That is the level where Senate Health Chairman David Matsuura refused to move forward a bill allowing physician-assisted suicide, where House Judiciary Chairman Eric Hamakawa killed a Senate-passed bill that would have made cockfighting a felony, and where Senate Transportation Chairman Cal Kawamoto will sink any bill regulating cruise ships. It is the level where Senate Labor Chairman Brian Kanno can be expected to kill any bill coming his committee's way that annoys public-employee union leadership.


Court needs primer
on religion clause


The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review a decision banning "under God" from public school recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance.

WHEN two appellate judges on a panel of three decided last year that recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools was unconstitutional because it contains the phrase "under God," the decision was scorned as a disgraceful distortion of the separation of church and state. The subsequent upholding of the decision by 15 of the appeals court's 24 judges -- with Judge Richard R. Clifton of Hawaii dissenting -- indicated a Supreme Court ruling is needed to clarify the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. To no one's surprise, the high court has agreed to review the decision and just as predictably will reverse it.

Justice Antonin Scalia has chosen not to take part in the case, having spoken out publicly against the decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That means that if the high court is deadlocked 4-to-4, Hawaii and the eight other states encompassing the 9th Circuit would be forbidden from having the pledge recited in public schools. But not to worry, for that will not happen.

The original Pledge of Allegiance, adopted in 1942, had no religious reference. Congress inserted the phrase "one nation under God" at the height of the Cold War in 1954 to emphasize America's contrast with "Godless communism." The Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that the reference to God in the pledge and the designation of "In God We Trust" as a national motto printed on coins were "a form of 'ceremonial deism,' protected from Establishment Clause scrutiny because they have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content." Indeed, Supreme Court sessions begin with the request, "God save this honorable court."

Hawaii public school children continue to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, but other religious references have been a subject of controversy in recent years. For example, McKinley High School agreed in January to expunge its long-standing "code of honor" containing an affirmation of "love of God" from handbooks, classroom posters, its Web site and future ceremonies.

In McKinley's settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union, the original 1927 plaque containing the phrase is allowed to remain on display. That reference extended beyond the principle of "ceremonial deism" in the code of honor but not on the plaque, where it is of historical significance.

Hawaii's public schools are not in need of further guidance about the Establishment Clause. The 9th Circuit's judges could use a refresher course.



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