Death Penalty, Grandparents Visitation Rights, ‘Choose Life’ license plate, Electoral Freedom Act, Breweries Bill
By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH — A bill that would repeal some aspects of the controversial Racial Justice Act of 2009 won a favorable recommendation from the House Judiciary B Subcommittee this week, but not without significant debate that broke along party lines.
Supporters of Senate Bill 9 – No Discriminatory Purpose in Death Penalty, say it is needed to repair the Racial Justice Act, which is too vague, has been misused by death row inmates to garner undeserved and costly appeals and has effectively created a moratorium on capital punishment.
But those championing the Racial Justice Act argue that it is imperative for defendants in capital crimes to be able to use statistics regarding past North Carolina cases to show that racism played a role in their sentences. Some 156 of 158 death row inmates have filed appeals based on the RJA, one of only two such laws in the nation.
Rep. Sarah Stephens (R-Alleghany) said the biggest problem she has with the RJA is that it allows clients to use statistics that are not in any way relevant to their cases, not even in the same area of the state or the same time period. She also questioned why the Legislature had passed a law based in part on a Michigan State University study showing that killers of white victims are more likely to get the death penalty when the data underlying the study had never been revealed, not even when requested by the court during a recent case in Forsyth County.
Similarly, Rep. John Faircloth (R-Guilford) argued that cases should be decided on the facts alone and not as a result of statistics from across the state.
But Rep. Rick Glazier (D-Cumberland) and others defended the RJA as necessary within a judicial system that allows for “broad discretion” and is “fraught with subjectivity.”
“We are human beings, and we are fallible, and we have prejudice, and we have bias,” he said. “And we use statistics to point that out in every other aspect of our lives — including employment discrimination cases — every day. But here we sit with a bill that says you may use that data to prove that your employer discriminated against you so you can get damages, but you cannot be using that data to save your life. How profoundly absurd.”
The subcommittee voted 9-6 to send the bill to the House floor where it expected to come up for discussion on June 15.
Emotions also ran high last week in a subcommittee meeting regarding Grandparents Visitation Rights, House Bill 239. Introduced numerous times over the past 14 years, the bill would broaden grandparents’ rights to petition the court for visitation with their grandchildren. Already they can do so during an ongoing custody dispute, when they can prove that circumstances have changed since custody was determined, when minor children are adopted by a step-parent or other relative, or when a parent has been deemed unfit.
But sponsors of the bill say many grandparents are still being left out of the mix and that judges who rule on custody could just as easily determine what is in the best interest of the child regarding grandparent’s visits.
But opponents of the bill pointed out that any attempt to give grandparents greater rights to their grandchildren would infringe upon the rights of parents to determine how best to raise their own sons and daughters.
“Grandparent Visitation sounds like a wonderful thing,” said Kathy Hartkopf. But she explained the sad reality that she and her husband faced when they made a decision to strictly limit their daughter’s time with one grandparent to protect her physical and emotional health.
“There are a lot of not-so-nice words that people sometimes use to describe parents who have to make this decision …. selfish, vindictive, using their children as pawns…” she said. “What I want to stress to you today … is that people of any age can be those things.”
She said limiting access to her children in their family’s situation did not make her and her husband selfish or vindictive. “It makes us good parents,” she said.
The North Carolina Family Policy Council, the Christian Action League and North Carolina Organization for Women all opposed the bill in committee on the grounds that it undermined parental rights.
“Having served in a pastoral capacity for more than 30 years, I have witnessed the awful pain of good grandparents being shut out for all the wrong reasons, but I’ve also witnessed parents protecting their children by shutting out problematic grandparents for all the right reasons,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. He commended the bill sponsors for trying to right a wrong, but warned that the bill would have unintended consequences that would be even worse than the initial problem.
Representatives Verla Insko (D-Orange) and Jennifer Weiss (D-Wake) commiserated with the bill sponsors — William Brisson (D-Bladen), Julia Howard (R-Davie) and Pat Hurley (R-Randolph) — but said the courtroom is not the best place for families to sort out their differences.
Nonetheless, House Judiciary Subcommittee C plans to take up the bill one more time to try to find common ground.
This week the Finance Committee passed legislation that gives approval to a number of specialty license plates, including the “Choose Life” plate. Debate in the committee focused on the pro-life license plate with three different hostile amendments being offered on the measure. All of the amendments failed. The legislation now goes to the House floor for consideration.
“This is truly an exciting time,” said Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “We’ve been advocating and lobbying for the passage of this measure for almost a decade. Now it appears that its time has finally arrived.”
A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the “Choose Life” license plate will be directed to the Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship, a non-profit group that will distribute the funds to the state’s Pregnancy Resource Centers.
It didn’t take long for lawmakers on the House Elections committee to find common ground with the Electoral Freedom Act. Modified since it was first introduced by Reps. Stephen LaRoque (R-Greene), Glenn Bradley (R-Franklin), Paul Luebke (D-Durham), and Jean Farmer-Butterfield (D-Edgecombe), House Bill 32 would make it easier for minor political parties to get their candidates on the ballot.
It won a favorable recommendation from the committee and is expected to come before the House early this coming week.
In other Legislative news, lawmakers gave their final stamp of approval this week for House Bill 98. The new law will allow breweries to sell the malt beverages they produce on site, whether or not voters have approved such beer sales via an alcohol referendum. The Christian Action League opposed the bill. The Governor signed the measure into law Friday, June 3rd.