The “Stop Guilt by Accusation Act” Episode Demonstrates Everything Wrong About the Legislative Process in RI

On Thursday afternoon, in between Democratic primary reporting and coronavirus reporting, the RI press was enraged by a bill (first flagged by The Boston Globe‘s Dan McGowan) introduced by state Senator Sandra Cano (and cosponsored by Senators Elizabeth Crowley, Ana Quezada, and Harold Metts) called the “Stop Guilt by Accusation Act” that essentially fined media outlets (that term was poorly defined in the legislation) for failure to do follow up reporting on “case[s] and controvers[ies]” and gave people accused of crimes the ability to petition news outlets to do that follow-up reporting (as well as established barriers for the use of mugshots). Media outlets who exercised their First Amendment rights to editorial judgement and refused to comply could’ve faced $10,000 fines. Media were exempted if they were satirical sites, or if they called themselves “fake news” in Trumpian language.

This was blatantly unconstitutional. In the ensuing firestorm, Sen. Cano withdrew the bill (but unfortunately not before defending its rationale). Sen. Cano explained she got the bill from Rep. Grace Diaz, 1st Vice Chair of the Rhode Island Democratic Party. Rep. Diaz asked Sen. Cano to introduce the bill as a Senate duplicate to Rep. Diaz’s House introduction. Rep. Diaz explained to the Providence Journal that she got it from a man Chris Sevier, but then she never introduced it on the advice of a colleague.

Sevier has had plenty of legislation introduced in the past. He was behind Sen. Frank Ciccone’s anti-porn legislation in 2018 (it passed committee and then Sen. Ciccone withdrew it upon learning it was deceptively named). That legislation was later introduced again in 2019 by Rep. Diaz (cosponsored by Rep. Charlene Lima) and then again few days later by Rep. Sherry Roberts (cosponsored by Reps. Justin Price, Robert Quattrochi, George Nardone, and Mike Chippendale). As Journal reporters Kathy Gregg and Patrick Anderson report, in 2019, Sevier also got Rep. Price to introduce anti-abortion legislation.

Sevier also, according to a 2018 story by Brandy Zadrozny in The Daily Beast, goes by multiple names, tried to marry his own computer to protest same-sex marriage, was charged with stalking and harassment of musician John Rich and a 17-year-old girl, was arrested and convicted for assaulting his father-in-law… etc. Virtually identical legislation to Sen. Cano’s was passed out of committee in the Mississippi Senate.

Rep. Diaz gave this statement to the Journal: “My feeling is beyond what I can express … If I knew, I would run ten-thousand-million miles away from that guy … I didn’t do my research … This is an experience that will teach me a lot for the future.”

Everything about this story is a wonderful illustration of how the legislative process works in Rhode Island.

Fundamentally, what Sevier did isn’t abnormal or illegal. There’s nothing that prevents someone from shopping legislation around to a bunch of states. ALEC is the most famous of these sorts of shops. A 2019 collaboration by USA Today, The Arizona Republic, and the Center for Public Integrity found that in the prior eight years at least 10,000 bills were introduced from “model legislation” produced by various interest groups, and tens of thousands more borrowed language from model legislation. Sevier’s operation is just a drop in the bucket, even in Rhode Island.

But what allowed such a blatantly unconstitutional act to be introduced? First, blatantly unconstitutional legislation is introduced all the time. As a quick example, Rep. Lima introduced anti-panhandling legislation last year, despite panhandling having been found to be protected speech. There is little downside in introducing unconstitutional legislation; you aren’t going to get penalized if it doesn’t pass or is thrown out in court. At least you can say to your constituents you tried.

Second, legislators don’t necessarily read all of the legislation that comes before them. Being a legislator is $16,000 a year “part-time” job that requires copious amounts of time to do and to get re-elected to do. Legislators share staff to answer their emails and phones.

In lieu of time and the money to pay for that time, legislators have to rely on trust. They trust their colleagues and the lobbyists they’ve developed relationships with. If a colleague comes before you with a piece of legislation, you take their word for it that it is good legislation, and you cosponsor it. Generally, you can rely on these people not to screw you over with bad legislation because they want to maintain that relationship to continue to get legislation passed.

Third, Rhode Island just has a stupid norm of duplicate, redundant legislation. Rep. Diaz should not have had to go to Sen. Cano to make sure that a piece of legislation she sponsors will get passed. Rep. Diaz should’ve had the expectation that a piece of legislation she introduces in the House, were it to pass the House, would then be taken up by the Senate. This is, in fact, how the process of legislating is described by the General Assembly itself.

But that is not how it works. In Rhode Island, any bill introduced in one chamber must have a redundant version introduced in the other chamber. If there is an amendment to one chamber’s bill that arises as a result of the committee process, those changes need to be communicated to the other chamber’s bill sponsor and that chamber’s bill must also be amended. Both bills must be passed, otherwise, the chambers often fail to transmit legislation that has passed both chambers to the governor for signing (how that’s possible is a whole other matter).

If Rep. Diaz had not needed Sen. Cano to introduce redundant legislation, this whole episode would’ve been nipped in the bud the moment she decided not to introduce her bill.

That’s the first reform we should make in response to this. There is nothing that requires duplicate legislation. Both chambers could call an end to this issue and simply stop doing duplicate legislation, and start taking each other’s bills up. It’s merely a norm, not a legal requirement. It could end tomorrow (or… well, Monday) if the General Assembly wanted it to.

The second reform we could make is to either pay legislators more, or let them hire their own individual staff to help read bills, or both. We need to dispense with this idea that being a legislator is a part-time job for a citizen legislature. We need to stop caring so much about who take pay increases, or denying legislators healthcare. With legislatures, you get what you pay for.

This reform would have a lot of knock-on effects. One thing that relies on legislators not reading it to get passed is the budget. Imagine if every legislator and a couple of staffers apiece sat down to read the budget when it came out. Would Victor Pedro have been able to get nearly $2 million in state funding? Imagine if legislators had someone loyal only to them to ask “are you really going to sponsor this?” How much better would our legislation be? How much less reliant on leadership would legislators be to get their jobs done?

These wouldn’t solve everything. Model legislation would still be passed. But it would greatly weaken the power of lobbyists. It would allow legislators to do research into proposed legislation, who proposed it, and why. If we’re tired of amateur hour up on Smith Hill, why not professionalize it?


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