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State House News Service report: "Anger, frustration" at July 14 transgender bill hearing hearing

“It’s an old-school M.O. that has no place in a modern legislature.”

July 15, 2009

Here's the State House News Service report released the morning after the hearing:


By Kyle Cheney

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JULY 14, 2009.....Outraged attendees of a Tuesday Judiciary Committee hearing are fuming over the committee’s decision to hear 227 bills – many of them controversial – in a single day, forcing committee leaders to cut off testimony from speakers on a range of topics, from gun violence, to sexual assault and a bill to add gender identity to the state’s non-discrimination statute.

More than a few eyebrows were raised during a marathon hearing Tuesday when the Senate chair of the committee, Cynthia Creem (D-Newton), cut off Secretary of Public Safety Kevin Burke and asked him to hurry his testimony on an administration-backed bill aimed at preventing gun violence.

“It’s an old-school M.O. that has no place in a modern legislature,” said Brian Condron, director of public affairs at the Home for Little Wanderers. “It’s crazy and they do this every year ... It really has no place in a modern legislature in an age of transparency.”

Frustration was visible throughout usually spacious Gardner Auditorium, which was packed to capacity, with an overflow crowd into the hallway. A state trooper and two park rangers stood watch at the door. Advocates for various bills privately questioned why the committee would schedule so many contentious bills for one hearing, and some said they would have to leave without testifying because of the long waits.

Adding to a chaotic atmosphere, lawmakers who serve on the committee frequently moved in and out of the room to cast votes during a busy House session, at one point leaving Creem as the lone member on the panel. At one point, Rep. Robert Rice told a packed elevator of people exiting the hearing to clear out and make way for House members on their way to a vote.

Because the committee adheres to a common legislative practice to take testimony from legislators and elected officials before members of the public, a line of nearly 20 lawmakers occupied most of the committee’s time for the first two-and-a-half hours of the hearing, which began at noon. Attorney General Martha Coakley, as well as Lt. Gov. Tim Murray and Secretary Burke, were also allowed to testify out of turn. Hundreds of people who came to tell sometimes-emotional stories about – to name a few – murdered family members, rape and gang violence, waited to testify.

House Republicans used the occasion to point out that Democrats haven’t supported their proposals to prevent such occurrences, in part by attempting to prevent such major scheduling conflicts.

“The people’s work is supposed to be done in a timely fashion, but not at the cost of the democratic process,” the House GOP wrote on its blog. “It is the status quo on Beacon Hill and until our Democratic colleagues are willing to work with us and make the process more efficient, unfortunately more situations like the one we are encountering today will most likely happen again.”

Three-and-a-half hours into the hearing, testimony hadn’t yet begun on the most-anticipated bill of the day for many in the audience, legislation adding protections for transgender people to the state non-discrimination statute. The committee, which initially blocked off 2:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. for testimony solely on that bill, pushed the start to 3:30 p.m. to allow members of the public to testify on other proposals.

Secretary Burke spoke on H 4102, Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal aimed at combating gun trafficking and preventing gang violence. The bill would bring Massachusetts into compliance with a federal law – passed in the wake of the mass-shooting at Viginia Tech University – that requires states to submit various personal data to the federal government to determine whether prospective gun buyers are fit to purchase firearms. Data that would be transmitted includes whether individuals have been committed to mental institutions or are addicted to any controlled substances, according to Burke.

Other bills that drew throngs of advocates to the hearing included one (H 344) to ban the devocalization of dogs. Devocalization is a process in which a dog’s vocal cords are cut or removed. Backers of the bill say the procedure causes unnecessary harm to dogs, puts dog-owners at risk of being bitten without warning and can lead to infection of dogs’ throats. Sen. Scott Brown (R-Wrentham) spoke in support of the bill, saying it was brought to his attention by a 15-year-old in his district. The bill was filed by Rep. Lida Harkins (D-Needham).

Other bills on which the committee took testimony included:

S 1559: A proposal to require courthouses to designate separate, safe spaces for crime victims and ensuring access to court proceedings for victims with disabilities.

H 1614: A proposal, backed by Attorney General Martha Coakley, to increase the maximum penalty for corporate manslaughter from $1,000 to $250,000. The proposal, filed by Judiciary Committee co-chair Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty, was aimed, in part, at Powers Fasteners, a company that Coakley prosecuted for providing the fast-set epoxy that failed in a fatal collapse of a Big Dig ceiling panel.

H 1668: A bill to include stepfamily members in incest laws. Rep. Elizabeth Poirier filed the petition, she said, when she learned that a constituent raped by her stepfather could not bring charges under existing incest laws.

S 1668: A proposal to remove three pre-Roe v. Wade, unenforced provisions of the General Laws that prohibit anyone from performing or advertising abortion services, or manufacturing devices used to perform abortions.

H 1423: Also known as Melissa’s Law, a proposal to classify habitual violent offenders and ensure they serve the maximum sentence for their most recently committed crimes. The bill was named for Melissa Gosule, who was murdered by a repeat offender who picked her up on the side of the road after her car broke down.

S 1757: A bill that would require jail time of 90 days to two-and-a-half years and fines of $500 to $5,000 for assaulting an on-duty nurse. The proposal garnered some tearful testimony from nurses who said they had been “punched, kicked, spit at and slapped” while caring for patients, some of whom had mental disabilities.

As of 5:45 p.m., Gardner Auditorium was still nearly full, with advocates for and against the gender identity bill testifying. Supporters of the legislation predicted at least another two hours of testimony.