CONCORD — Couples hoping to have a beloved family member or best friend preside at their wedding will have to plan their ceremony in Vermont or some other state that allows such proceedings, because New Hampshire will not, at least for now.
A bill that would have allowed family or friends to preside at weddings through a special marriage officiant license died unexpectedly — the victim of a disagreement between the House and Senate over the use of retired judges on the state Supreme Court.
What do retired Supreme Court judges have to do with special marriage officiants you may ask? The answer is nothing, except that Senate Democrats for reasons they have yet to explain decided to attach the “non-germane” amendment about judges to the marriage officiant bill.
The last-minute maneuver on HB 295 confused stakeholders who’d followed the legislation closely. One of those stakeholders, the N.H. Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence (NHCADSV), was counting on more than $51,000 in license fees from the special officiant program.
Jessica Eskeland, public policy specialist for the NHCADSV, testified in support of the bill during its Senate hearing, pointing out that the bulk of the funds from the new licenses would go to help support the organization’s 13 domestic crisis centers around the state.
The coalition had to turn away 1,854 adults and 1,310 children over the past two years due to a lack of space at the centers, which desperately need a more stable funding source, she said.
“I’m trying to find out what happened,” she said. “The underlying bill had broad bipartisan support, but the Senate walked away from it after the judicial amendment went down.”
The legislation passed the House on April 4 in a 214-155 vote, authorizing the Secretary of State to issue the one-time marriage officiant license to anyone who completes a registration form and pays a $30 fee.
The Senate Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on the bill in April, with no indication that any amendments were coming. Then at the committee voting session on May 14, Democrats introduced the amendment regarding temporary appointment of retired Supreme Court justices during vacancies on the court.
Republican Sen. Sharon Carson of Londonderry, a committee member and co-sponsor of the underlying bill, said at the time that she was blindsided by the move.
“It is shocking that Senate Democrats would use a bill related to temporary marriage officiant licenses to attach a non-germane amendment with such far-reaching consequences,” she said.
“This amendment should have had a public hearing, so the committee could learn what it does and uncover any unintended consequences. Instead the people have been cut out of the process; half the committee members were left in the dark; and the state Supreme Court itself was completely unaware of the proposed change. This complete abandonment of the process is unacceptable and should never have been allowed to happen.”
Despite those protests, the bill as amended was voted out of committee along party lines, and passed the Senate on May 30 in a 14-10 party-line vote.
When the conference committee of House and Senate negotiators met to hash out their differences on June 17, Eileen Fox, clerk of the Supreme Court, was asked to testify, which is unusual at such a late stage in the legislative process.
She confirmed upon questioning by Republican Sen. Harold French of Franklin that the court system did not ask for the amendment. “We didn’t ask for it, but when we learned of it we thought it would be helpful,” she said.
House members on the conference committee, however, would not budge, citing a lack of proper procedures in adopting the amendment and concerns about its constitutionality.
“These issues were raised during the committee of conference and the Senate conferees agreed to withdraw their amendment and pass the bill as it left the House,” according to Democratic Rep. David Woodbury of New Boston. “Subsequent to the meeting, the Senate conferees did not sign off.”
Senate President Donna Soucy on Monday declined to comment on why Senate members of the conference committee led their House counterparts to believe they had a deal on the underlying bill only to let it die on the vine without explanation.
She provided a written statement: “Throughout the session we received push back about some complications with the bill and there were differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill which ultimately couldn’t be reconciled at this time. However, I look forward to revisiting the issue soon.”
The question of finding fill-ins for Supreme Court judges isn’t entirely academic, as Gov. Chris Sununu has nominated Attorney General Gordon MacDonald to serve as chief justice. If confirmed, MacDonald would have to recuse himself from several cases coming to the court that he was involved with as head of the Department of Justice.
There have been recent unsuccessful attempts to amend the constitution so that judges would not face mandatory retirement at 70, and several retired justices like John Broderick and Carol Ann Conboy still have an active public profile.
But how those dynamics converged on a bill designed to make New Hampshire a friendlier wedding venue remains a mystery. The Senate office would not identify the author of the amendment on fill-in judges, describing it as a “committee amendment.”
Soucy had to replace two Democratic Senators on the Senate-House conference committee, which usually happens when lawmakers decline to vote as instructed. She first replaced Sen. Shannon Chandley of Amherst with Sen. Melanie Levesque of Nashua on June 14, and then put herself in Levesque’s place on June 20, the day the bill died for lack of sign-off by the Senate.
“We find the whole thing curious, and I know my folks are asking questions,” said Eskeland.
“I have a sense that there’s something larger going on behind the scenes that we are not aware of. We look forward to working with the legislature to revive the bill.”