Massachusetts legislators have 'duty' to vote on marriage amendment, court rules

BOSTON (BP)--The highest court in Massachusetts delivered a stinging rebuke to legislators Dec. 27, declaring that members have a "constitutional duty" to vote on a proposed marriage amendment.

The seven justices on the Supreme Judicial Court said in the unanimous decision they had no "statutory authority" to force the legislature to vote. But they used most of the decision to spell out legislators' duties, and amendment supporters hope the decision will persuade enough legislators not to kill the amendment when a constitutional convention is convened Jan. 2, the final day of the session.

"The members of the joint session have a constitutional duty to vote, by the yeas and nays, on the merits of all pending initiative amendments before recessing on January 2, 2007," Justice John M. Greaney wrote for the court. "... The members of the General Court [the legislature] are the people's elected representatives, and each one of them has taken an oath to uphold the Constitution of the Commonwealth.

"Those members who now seek to avoid their lawful obligations, by a vote to recess without a roll call vote by yeas and nays on the merits of the initiative amendment (or by other procedural vote of similar consequence), ultimately will have to answer to the people who elected them."

The proposed amendment would protect the natural definition of marriage, thus reversing the landmark "gay marriage" decision from 2003 by the same court. Amendment supporters collected a record 170,000 signatures to place the proposal before the legislature, which must approve it if it is to make the 2008 ballot. But so far, legislators have balked.

The amendment needs the support in two consecutive sessions by only one-fourth of legislators -- something supporters say they have. The legislature, though, has met three times this year and has yet to vote on the amendment. In November, they voted 109-87 to recess until Jan. 2. If they take the same action Jan. 2, the amendment will die. Supporters of "gay marriage" are lobbying legislators to do just that.

The lawsuit was brought by several amendment supporters, including Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, who is serving in the final days of his term.

"The SJC has made it crystal clear: the constitution requires a vote on the marriage amendment," VoteOnMarriage.org, the group behind the amendment, said in a statement. "As such, we expect a fair up or down vote on January 2, there are no more excuses for legislators to hide behind."

In his decision, Greaney quoted often from the Massachusetts Constitution, specifically from Article 48, which says in part, "Final legislative action in the joint session upon any amendment shall be taken only by call of the yeas and nays." The drafters of the Massachusetts Constitution, Greaney asserted, "did not intend a simple majority of the joint session to have the power effectively to block progress of an initiative."

Despite the ruling's strong language, amendment opponents said they would continue to urge legislators to adjourn without a vote. Arline Isaacson, co-chairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, acknowledged that supporters have the votes to pass the amendment, assuming a vote is allowed.

"We know that if the Legislature votes on the amendment, we will lose this year and next year, and it will go to the ballot, where it will likely pass," Isaacson said, according to The Boston Globe.

Senate Minority Leader Brian P. Lees, a Republican, said he would vote to adjourn and to kill the amendment.

"I will never vote to put a form of discrimination into the state constitution," he said, according to The Globe.

But Romney praised the ruling.

"I applaud the court's unanimous decision that the Legislature has a constitutional duty to vote on the merits of the marriage amendment," Romney said in a statement, according to The Globe. "As the court has made very clear, a procedural maneuver to avoid this responsibility would violate a legislator's oath of office. The issue is now whether the Legislature will follow the law."

Some legislators had argued the state constitution doesn't require an up-or-down vote. Greaney, though, disagreed.

"Today's discussion and holding on the meaning of the duty lays any doubt to rest," he wrote.

In fact, Greaney asserted, any question as to the constitution's requirement is now "beyond serious debate."

The suit was one of two lawsuits pertaining to the amendment. The other one was filed in federal court and is still pending.


For more information about the national debate over "gay marriage," visit http://www.bpnews.net/samesexmarriage