Liberty & Justice

These are the fundamental principles on which our commonwealth and our nation are founded. Our Declaration of Independence and our state and federal constitutions hold out the promise of equality and justice for all of us. Our history has been marked by the evolution of our understanding of what these principles mean in action, as applied to different groups and situations. As a student of constitutional law, I’m always trying to think ahead, to see where we haven’t caught up with our ideals, and where our laws should be heading next.

Criminal Justice Reform Legislation Nears Completion

Both the House and Senate engrossed major criminal justice reform bills in the last weeks of formal session in November, 2017. Because there are differences in the bills passed by the respective branches, the bills are currently being reconciled in conference committee. The bill that the conference committee releases will then be enacted, presumably, by both chambers - this will be an up or down vote, without any amendments.


This bill has been many years in preparation, thanks to the advocacy of many, and substantial preparation by members of the legislature, especially members of the Harm Reduction Caucus and the Progressive Caucus. Because I've never practiced criminal law, I did a lot of reading, and attended many briefings about topics from bail to probation, criminal records to solitary confinement. The new House Chair of the Judiciary committee, Claire Cronin, herself a criminal defense lawyer, kept an open door and invited all House members to talk to her about what we wanted to see in the bill the House produced.


The House bill was thoughtful and comprehensive. Although it did not go as far as some of us would have liked, it made historic - and overdue - changes in Massachusetts criminal law. As part of the Progressive Caucus, I followed the bill closely, and helped to craft a detailed letter to the conference committee, commenting on the two versions and making suggestions for producing the best possible bill that we can hope to see as the culmination of this unprecedented lawmaking process.

January 08, 2018

The Right to Repair, and the Responsibility to Conserve

I've been getting a lot of messages lately in support of a bill that would give owners of consumer electronics a "right to repair" these devices. As it is now, service agreements, voiding of warranties, and sole sourcing of replacement parts lock many people into expensive relationships with temperamental devices destined for a short life, until the owner is forced to "upgrade." Big corporations profit, scarce minerals and other resources are depleted, and landfills grow.


One of the best commentaries I've seen on the subject comes from Jim Hightower's estimable "Hightower Lowdown":


One of the most admirable local responses I've seen to corporate product blackmail is not local, but represents an example to be emulated:

January 08, 2018

After the Las Vegas Shooting: Banning "Bump" Stocks

I shared the widespread horror at the recent shooting on the Las Vegas Strip, when hundreds of rounds of ammunition, fired in less than a minute, killed over 50 concertgoers and wounded hundreds. One of the details which emerged was the shooter's use of "bump stocks;" devices which give semi-automatic rifles a rate of fire akin to fully-automatic weapons. These bump stocks - which can be purchased for as little as $99 - turned out to be perfectly legal in Massachusetts.


Learning later that the Las Vegas shooter had looked into committing his act of carnage at Fenway Park made members of the Massachusetts House look more closely at the destructive capability of bump stocks. I was one of the first co-sponsors of Rep. David Linsky's An Act Prohibiting large capacity feeding devices and devices that increase the rate of discharge of a weapon, which passed the House on October 11th. Now the action moves to the Senate on its way to Governor Baker, who has promised he would sign such a ban into law. 

October 13, 2017

Paying Attention to Domestic Violence

In late September, I attended a State House briefing on firearm violence, presented by the Massachusetts Chapter of the American College of Surgeons. I learned that women in the USA are eleven times more likely than women in any developed country to be killed by a firearm, mostly in the context of domestic violence. I heard that domestic partners in Massachusetts who are subject to restraining orders may continue to carry their licensed firearms. I was chagrinned, but not surprised, by this information.


In Somerville, we annually observe Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The Candlelight Vigil this year will be held in Statue Park in Davis Square, from 6 pm until 7 pm. I’ll be there.

October 04, 2016

Fear of Transgender People

The general atmosphere of fearfulness has not been helpful to securing the full civil rights of transgender people. Like many others, I had hoped that the House would bring H.1577, which I filed in the House last January with Rep. Byron Rushing, forward for a vote this year. I'll continue to work hard for the bill's passage, but it's worth stating what the impediments are.


Gov. Baker's position presents difficulties. Since becoming governor, he has said he does not support the bill, and has suggested that he would veto it if it passed. The challenge of a potential veto means that it's important to have two thirds of House members - a veto-proof majority - vote "yes" when the bill is put before us. This overwhelming degree of support has proved hard to secure.


A majority of representatives do support this bill (H.1577), and many have been public and forthright in stating their belief that our laws should guarantee equality. Others keep raising hypothetical fears; and when their objections are satisfied, develop new concerns. I can point out that 18 other states - and 13 Massachusetts cities and towns - have adopted transgender anti-discrimination laws, and encountered no problems. I can point to the endorsement of this bill by Attorney general Maura Healey; by the statewide District Attorneys' Association, by the Police Chief's Association, but even the support of these public safety officials seems not to reassure those who believe that this civil rights law will somehow enable and protect sexual predators.

December 23, 2015

Fear of Refugees

These anxious times of ours are marked with eruptions of fear around every perceived threat, no matter how remote or tenuous. Not long ago, the fear of Ebola infection was so great that many Americans opposed entry to the US by anyone coming from the continent of Africa. Now shocking numbers of people - including Governor Baker and a majority of the U.S. House of Representatives - seem convinced that refugees from Syria pose a serious terrorist threat.


Congressman Seth Moulton pushed back early to Gov. Baker's statement that he was "not interested" in having Syrian refugees settle in Massachusetts. Although he's received less publicity for it, Congressman Mike Capuano has put forward a trenchant set of arguments why the refusal to admit Syrian refugees is foolish and irrational. There have also been refreshingly human views of the issue, for instance Kevin Cullen (12/1/15), recently in the Boston Globe.  


Although the state legislature plays no part in setting U.S. refugee resettlement policy, many of you have contacted me on this subject. Some have written just to complain about Gov. Baker's position. Be assured that I continue to speak out against xenophobia.

December 23, 2015

Fear of Immigrants

I recently had an opportunity to fight the ugly (dare I say trumped up?) bias against the foreign -born (and those assumed to be.) I testified against a bill that aims to disqualify from receiving state aid any community with a "sanctuary city" resolution - such as Somerville, which adopted one about 30 years ago. The bill, H.1856, is so poorly conceived and drafted that it equates such resolutions with failure to enforce federal immigration law.


Resolutions - at least at the local and state level - are statements of positions or sentiment, without legal effect. In the Massachusetts legislature, they are frequently invoked to congratulate; on the local level, resolutions often communicate more serious subject matter, such as support for a state action or policy outside of local jurisdiction. Somerville's "Sanctuary City" resolution, adopted during El Salvador's civil war, is a message of welcome, expressing an intent not to discriminate against immigrants and refugees in city services.


Neither state nor local action can prevent federal agencies from exercising their lawful authority. The federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE; formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS) can and does conduct investigations and raids in Somerville, as they do everywhere else. The US constitution puts immigration and naturalization squarely under federal jurisdiction - which is why this nation waits for Congress to pass much-needed reforms in our immigration laws.

December 23, 2015

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