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Retention of pro-gay justices ends debate on Vermont civil unions

Retention of pro-gay justices ends debate on Vermont civil unions

Leading Democrats believe the final act of the drama over the Vermont legislature's enactment of civil unions for gay and lesbian couples five years ago finally has played itself out. It came last week when the house and senate jointly voted to retain four supreme court justices in office for another six-year term. Three of those justices served on the court in 1999 when it ruled that same-sex couples were being unconstitutionally denied the rights and benefits of marriage. The justices' support for the decision in what became known as the Baker case was one of the arguments that the justices' opponents used in urging that they be fired for, among other allegations, overstepping their constitutional authority. But when the votes were counted Thursday, none of the justices came close to losing their jobs. "I feel like [Thursday] was a milestone that I feel really, really good about in terms of having the retention vote and having that behind us," said Democratic house speaker Gaye Symington. "Just think of what we went through not very long ago in this house and the repercussions in the 2000 election cycle. We're beyond those repercussions." In the view of Symington and many other Democrats, voters have become accustomed to the idea of civil unions and no longer are looking to make public officials pay for enacting the law. In November the Democratic Party, which lost its house majority in 2000, in large part because of civil unions, was returned to power. Still, many wondered whether lawmakers would be pressured to oust at least one justice to hold the court accountable for its role in essentially forcing the legislature to enact the law. Public hearings on whether the justices should be retained in office generated a fair amount of invective, particularly against Justice John Dooley. But lawmakers found the arguments not only unpersuasive but in many cases offensive. And with the vote came the symbolic end of the bitter divisions caused by the law's adoption. "I think [the] retention of the court closes another arc," said Democratic representative William Lippert, who was a leading proponent of the civil unions law and chaired the committee that recommended the justices keep their jobs. "I think the issue of civil unions clearly was at play in the decision. I think there's a kind of closure now--there's another piece of closure." Although Democrats were satisfied to be returned to their majority in November, they were well aware of the constitutional requirement that justices who want to stay in office must be "retained" every six years. And they knew as they took office that 2005 was the first year since the Baker decision that justices faced that vote. Playing in the back of Lippert's mind as he took over leadership of the retention committee was a vow he had heard in 2000 by a civil unions opponent. "We intend to defang the Vermont supreme court," Lippert recalled hearing. But even some of the most ardent opponents realized that they were unlikely to succeed once the Democrats won such big house and senate majorities in November. "There's no surprise, as I've stated for the record from the beginning," said Kevin Blier, spokesman for Citizens Alliance for Judicial Accountability and Vermont Renewal. "I don't think this result was ever in doubt." Even that, to many of the people who helped to write the civil unions bill and push it into law, is a sign that the state has gone a long way toward healing the divisions that were on such raw display five years and a day before the supreme court retention vote, when the house first debated the proposal. "It's news that it's not news," Symington said, marveling about how little the entire state became engaged in this final act of the civil unions debate. Added Lippert: "We have moved into an era where it's not news in the same way." (AP)

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