HB 129: "AN ACT relative to access to galleries in the general court"

additional commentary by Rep. Timothy Horrigan; February 24, 2013

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AN ACT relative to access to galleries in the general court.

SPONSORS: Rep. Horrigan, Straf 6; Rep. P. Sullivan, Hills 10; Rep. Chase, Ches 8

COMMITTEE: Legislative Administration


This bill codifies part 2, article 8 of the New Hampshire constitution requiring the galleries of each house to be open to all persons except in certain circumstances.

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Explanation: Matter added to current law appears in bold italics.

Matter removed from current law appears [in brackets and struckthrough.]

Matter which is either (a) all new or (b) repealed and reenacted appears in regular type.




In the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Thirteen

AN ACT relative to access to galleries in the general court.

Be it Enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives in General Court convened:

1 New Section; Open Sessions of Legislature. Amend RSA 14 by inserting after section 14-c the following new section:

14:14-d Open Sessions of Legislature. Pursuant to part 2, article 8 of the New Hampshire constitution, the galleries of each house shall be open at all times during legislative sessions except when the welfare of the state requires secrecy. In the case of a disruption, disturbance, emergency, or other condition which makes it unsafe to keep the gallery open, the house or senate shall go into recess until it is safe to continue. Such a recess shall be as short as possible. The availability of live streaming video, television broadcast, or other audiovisual presentation shall not be deemed a substitute for opening the galleries. Nothing in this section shall be construed as preventing law enforcement officers or the sergeant at arms from excluding dangerous or disruptive individuals, or from preventing entrance to the galleries when they are filled to capacity.

2 Effective Date. This act shall take effect 60 days after its passage.

This bill has already died: it was killed about 15 minutes into the February 13, 2013 session (along with many other bills) on the "Consent Calendar." My written testimony did not convince the Legislative Administration Committee that this bill was necessary.

Testimony in favor of HB 129

AN ACT relative to access to galleries in the general court.

By Rep. Timothy Horrigan (Strafford 6); January 23, 2013

HB 129 is a simple bill which if passed would make sure that future House Speakers and future Senate Presidents continue to follow Part Second Article 8 of the State Constitution. That article states:

[Art.] 8. [Open Sessions of Legislature.] The doors of the galleries, of each house of the legislature, shall be kept open to all persons who behave decently, except when the welfare of the state, in the opinion of either branch, shall require secrecy.

September 5, 1792

Many— probably most— articles of the Constitution are also embodied in statute law. Part Second Article 8 isn't, but it should be.

The framers of the State Constitution knew that it is important to keep the galleries open when the General Court is in session: that's why they gave the galleries their own article in the constitution. Our current State House didn't open till 1819, 27 years after Part Second Article 8 was enacted. The building as we currently know it is largely the product of a 1903 renovation. This doesn't in any way negate the importance of Part Second Article 8. The reason the House and Senate galleries were built in the first place was because our state's leaders valued our constitution and understood the importance of an open legislature.

My bill is inspired by the events of March 4, 2009 and March 31, 2011.

On March 4, 2009, a House Concurrent Resolution about Jeffersonian Democracy lost by a margin of 216-150. (I was one of only four Democrats who voted for it.) This displeased many of the spectators in the gallery, and the House had to put up with a few minutes of booing and chanting. At the time, it was against the rules to bring guns into Reps Hall, and some of the demonstrators were "open-carrying." However, no one in the gallery did anything more threatening than making a little noise for a few minutes. Speaker Norelli did the right thing: she recessed the House long enough for the disturbance to calm down, and then she resumed the people's business with the gallery open.

The matter being debated on March 31, 2011 was of much greater importance: this was the day the House voted on its version of the 2012-2013 budget. There was a disturbance in the gallery after the first major vote of a budget debate.

Speaker O'Brien immediately recessed the proceedings, which was appropriate. His next action, however, was both inappropriate and unconstitutional: he closed the gallery for several hours and continued the day's business. I myself was one of many representatives who spoke before an empty gallery during those several hours. The Speaker reopened the gallery just in time for Majority Leader Bettencourt's final speech and the last few decisive votes.

This bill basically clarifies what's already in the Constitution. When there is an event in the gallery which makes it unsafe to continue, the House must go into recess. This would also apply to emergencies, although in practice any emergency which makes the gallery unsafe will make the chamber unsafe as well. (There is nothing in the Constitution or in the RSA's, by the way, which requires the General Court to meet only at the State House. If the State House is unsafe for whatever reason, the legislature could meet somewhere else— as long as they provide a gallery for the public.)

My bill clarifies that streaming video is not a substitute for allowing people to be there in the gallery. Streaming video simply isn't an adequate substitute: you can see more from the gallery than you could see on a computer monitor. Streaming video is also unreliable: on March 31, 2011, the audiovisual servers reportedly crashed.

I would like to address two questions which arose during the 2012 hearings on a virtually identical bill:

Firstly, there is no penalty, so how can this law be enforced? My answer is that any votes taken in violation of my proposed statute would be illegal: such votes would not be binding on other parties— e.g., the Senate would not be obliged to take up a bill in the absence of a legal vote by the House. In an extreme case, violating my proposed statute could serve as grounds for censuring or removing a rogue Speaker or Senate President.

Secondly, could this bill allow a mob to prevent the legislature from doing its work? The incidents in March 2009 and 2011 were both nonviolent. If violence had broken out in Reps Hall on either occasion, the Speaker would presumably have been forced to recess the proceedings anyway, continuing at a later time and possibly at a different location. March 31, 2011 was a deadline day, but in an emergency the Speaker has the power to "stop the clock" to continue the debate on a later calendar date.

Rep. Timothy Horrigan

7A Faculty Rd; Durham, NH 03824; ph: 603-868-3342; email: Timothy.Horrigan@alumni.usc.edu

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