additional commentary by NH State Rep. Timothy Horrigan; December 20-31, 2012
On December 20, 2012, the House Rules Committee met to draw up revised House Rules for the 2013 session, which will be approved by the full House on or shortly after January 2, 2013. About 100 people showed up to sit in on the meeting. No testimony was taken from either the public or from state representatives. The official explanation was that no testimony could be taken because this was merely a "regular meeting" rather than a hearing— even though testimony can be (and typically is) taken at Rules Committee meetings. (Case in point: the January 21, 2009 meeting where a procedure was established for handling petitions.)
The newly elected Speaker of the House, Terie Norelli, is the chair of the committee. She did not show up for this meeting even though she was at the State House all day attending to other business.
The most contentious issue before the Rules Committee was banning guns: they will (presumably) now once again be banned in the House chamber and areas adjacent thereto. But the abolition of the Redress of Grievances committee ran a close second. There were actually three rules related to petitions which will (presumably) be revised. Rule 30-q created the committee, and it is being deleted. Rule 66, relating to subpoenas, was enacted in 2012 for the benefit of the Redress Committee. Speaker Norelli wants to keep Rule 66 in place, but now the whole House has to approve a subpoena; previously subpoenas could be approved by the Rules Committee and the Speaker. Finally, Rule 18 was amended to clarify that it is the House Clerk rather than the Speaker whose job it is to "state the substance of the petition in summary" before the Full House. For the past four years the practice has been for the Clerk to announce just the titles of the petitions, saying who the complainants are and whom the complainants are complaining about— and nothing beyond that.
Here is my written testimony which was never delivered in any form to the committee:
Testimony Regarding Proposed 2013 Rules Changes
by Rep. Timothy Horrigan (Strafford District 6)
December 20, 2012
Two standing committees were created for the 2011 session. I served as a member of the minority on both committees. I only served as a substitute on the Committee on Constitutional Review & Statutory Recodification. The Constitutional Review part of its duties was superfluous: every committee is responsible for upholding the state and federal constitutions. The Statutory Recodification part was an interesting idea which the standing committee appointed in 2011 was totally unequipped to deal with. (The current set of law books, the Revised Statutes Annotated, has been in place since 1955.)
Past legislatures have had standing committees with names like Constitutional Revision or Statutory Revision. It might be worthwhile having a committee which handles all the proposed constitutional amendments and which also works on recodifying the law books. Even though the constitution is only rarely amended, there are enough CACR's introduced every session to keep a committee busy.
I was a member of the Petitions & Redress of Grievances Committee throughout its first (and quite possibly only) two years of existence.
The rule (Rule #30-q) which created the Redress of Grievances committee needs to be changed. It gave too much unilateral power to the Chair. It gave no guidance on how to dispose of the petitions, and the procedure we actually followed violated Mason's Manual (Rule #148) as well as the House's own "custom, usage and precedent." Rule 30-q also paradoxically gave the committee too much power and not enough: we were basically empowered to do just about everything but consider actual legislation.
I would like to propose the following change to the House Rule which created this committee:
(q) It shall be the duty of the Committee for Petitions and Redress of Grievances to consider petitions submitted to the House pursuant to Part I, Articles 31 and 32 of the New Hampshire Constitution. All petitions to the House must be submitted by one or more members of the House, on behalf of one or more residents of New Hampshire, and must deal with a topic of general public interest. The committee shall refer petitions to the appropriate policy committee when and if there appear to be feasible legislative remedies. The committee shall also deal with all matters related to appeals processes for federal, state, county and municipal government agencies; and such other matters as may be referred to it.
Service on the Redress Committee was a frustrating experience and many members gave up on the committee. A few of those absentee members simply never showed up; however most of them took their committee assignment seriously at first, but sooner or later got fed up.
It was unclear what our powers were, and there were many months during which time we accomplished little if anything. Indeed, in our first year of existence, we disposed of exactly one petition. Petition #1 took two months to get out of the way even though the sponsor admitted about 5 minutes into the initial hearing that the ostensible complainant, the Hudson School District, had never asked him to bring the petition. By the time our hearings began in earnest, in the summer of 2011, it was already too late to introduce legislation to deal with the problems described in our petitions, since the filing window for the 2012 session closed on June 8, 2011.
Our chair was a very good person and a very good state representative— but he made several major mistakes.
Firstly, he ran the committee for the benefit of the petitioners. This led in many cases to repetitive hearings which dragged on for hours, and to proceedings which dragged on for many months. In one case, he even let the sponsor of a petition run the meeting. The committee was encouraged to take a one-sided view of the petitions we were reviewing: we forgot that we were to serve all the parties involved in these cases, not just the petitioners.
Secondly, he failed to keep the committee focussed on doable legislative remedies. We had a number of petitions where we were asked to consider remedies which were unconstitutional, illegal and/or infeasible.
Thirdly, there was a severe lack of quality control at every step of the committee's legislative process (insofar as there was any process at all.) At the very beginning of that process, several petitions had blatant errors: for example, many names were misspelled, including in one case the name of a complainant. Our petitioners' supporting documentation was often illegible, irrelevant and/or incomplete. More than once, petitioners went away from our proceedings with a severe misunderstanding of what had or had not been accomplished. For example, one petitioner announced on his blog that we had impeached several judges when we had done nothing of the sort. Even at the end of the process, several of our committee reports were erroneous.
Also, a problem which I myself contributed to was that the committee publicized all sorts of personal information which should not have been publicized.
Most of the petitioners, and even some members of the committee, thought we could retry the petitioners' court cases. This is a power which the legislature simply does not have. Even in the years before the Merrill vs. Sherburne decision in 1818, the legislature (at least, according to those old journals I have looked at) did not retry cases: instead, they passed resolutions urging the courts to retry certain cases.
The General Court does have the power to impeach judges and other officials but this is rarely used. No judge should ever be impeached simply for making decisions which displeased the losing side— especially not when those decisions were never overturned by a higher court and/or when those decisions were made in accordance with all applicable laws and court rules.
The Redress of Grievances committee was the brainchild of legislators who think the New Hampshire supreme court decision Merrill v. Sherburne, 1 N.H. 199 (1818) was the worst mistake in the history of our state's judiciary. In the early days of the committee, we were given a thick packet of historical documents, but those documents all predated the War of 1812. Everything that happened after the 1810s was considered irrelevant to our work. This was a huge frustration for those members (like myself) who look first to the 20th and 19th centuries before turning to the 18th century for guidance on how to solve the problems of 21st-century New Hampshire.
Petitions continued to be part of the General Court's traditions throughout most of the two centuries between Merrill vs. Sherburne and the founding of the Redress of Grievances Committee. For many decades, petitions were used as a means of expressing concern about a specific issue. Such petitions were filed typically on behalf of one or more citizens, sometimes on behalf of one or more municipalities, and occasionally on behalf of corporations, advocacy groups, etc. These were referred to a specific policy committee. As recently as 1945, a House petition was used as the vehicle for studying a major scandal at the state's Old Soldiers Home. Well into the 1960s, the House and Senate considered resolutions "in favor" of redressing specific individuals's grievances.
I have not examined every old House Journal, but I have looked at quite a few. It appears that the committee of Redress of Grievances as such never existed until 2011. For a short period (apparently) ending in 1817, the House and Senate both had standing committees "for new trials, or restoration to law." This was before Merrill vs. Sherburne, and this was also several years before the House adopted the current system of standing policy committees in the mid-1820s. Before 1824, there were only a few standing committees, which all dealt with routine business rather than policy issues.
Even though the Petitions & Redress of Grievances Committee's first term was far from successful, I think the committee could still be valuable. The State Constitution does guarantee citizens the right to petition their legislature, and a dedicated petitions committee would be a useful resource to supplement the other policy committees. I would recommend continuing the committee with different rules and procedures. Going forward, the committee's hearings ideally should be limited in scope to determining which policy committee should get the petition and to giving that committee some basic guidance on what issues to concentrate on. Policy committees should (as they did in the past) have the option of not taking any action at all on petitions. When they do take action, committees should not be afraid to say "No." One of the biggest difficulties the Redress Committee ran into during 2011-2012 was that there were many new members (myself included, since I was in my second term) who didn't always appreciate that the legislature can (and often does) legitimately say "No" to good ideas. The Redress Committee ended up approving several very questionable petitions simply because the petitioners may have incidentally referred in passing to issues of legitimate concern.
The petitioners understandably appreciated the opportunity to have open-ended discussions of their cases. However, this was not necessarily a good use of the members' time, nor was this fair to the other parties to those cases. Ironically, though not surprisingly, some of the most convincing presentations were given by the sponsors and petitioners who spoke for the shortest time.
Finally, I wish to address two other issues before the Rules Committee. Firstly, I agree that House's own "custom, usage and precedent" should move ahead of Mason's Manual in the order of sources of authority. Secondly, I think the gun rules need to be tightened up— a lot. The Newtown, Connecticut shootings angered my community even more than others, since one of the children who was murdered has roots in Durham. Six-year-old Benjamin Wheeler's father is Durham native David Wheeler, who was a good friend of mine back when we were attending to the local schools.
Rep. Timothy Horrigan; 7A Faculty Road; Durham, NH 03824
There were no standing policy committees as such back then: the policy committee system as we know it today was not invented until 1824. There are approximately 40 names in the June 1817 committee listings: most of the members were on no standing committees at all. And all these committees deal with routine housekeeping and/or administrative functions. Policy questions were referred to ad hoc committees
Just in case you are wondering, here are the proposed rules changes which will go before the Full House on January 2nd:
AMENDMENT TO HOUSE RULES
PROPOSED BY THE HOUSE RULES COMMITTEE
Amend the first sentence of Rule 63 to read as follows: No person, including members of the House, except law enforcement officers while actively engaged in carrying out their duties as such, shall carry or have in possession any deadly weapon as defined in RSA 625:11, V, while in the House Chamber, anterooms, cloakrooms, or any portion of the State House adjacent to any of the above.
Amend Rule 64 to read as follows:
Amend Rule 66 to read as follows:
First Year Session Deadline Dates:
Petition #22: the Joe Haas Petition (Joe Haas showed up at the December 20, 2012 meeting with paperwork related to his attempt to bring a private prosecution against Speaker Norelli— but for whatever reason she skipped the meeting.)
Official Petitions & Redress committee page (not much to see here)