Posted: Aug. 9, 2013
THE FATE OF THE DEATH PENALTY BILL
By Celia Cohen
The irony for the bill about repealing the death penalty is it is locked up itself on the legislative equivalent of death row, ready to expire when the Delaware General Assembly ends its two-year session next June.
It will not go without a fight, however. The effort to save it looks to be a major dynamic when the legislature returns to Dover in January.
In a session that included gay marriage and guns, the proposal to abolish capital punishment still managed to stand out for the emotion, intensity and legislative brinksmanship surrounding it.
The legislation, Senate Bill 19, would repeal the death penalty, except for 17 inmates currently sentenced to be executed. It got through the Senate in March but has not been able to get out of committee in the House of Representatives.
When the bill was considered in the Senate, the life-or-death debate with its pastiche of religion, morality, inhumanity and justice was one of the most profound ever heard inside Legislative Hall.
The soul searching by the senators blew apart the usual political pigeonholing. The "yes" votes came from upstaters and downstaters, men and women, Democrats and Republicans, and so did the "no" votes.
The closeness of the votes in the Senate to pass the bill and in the House Judiciary Committee not to let it out is another mark of the angst of this debate. It was 11-10 in the Senate and 6-5 in the House committee.
Since the repeal bill got stuck in committee, its backers have been trying to figure out a way to bring it out, and they have continued to meet over the summer.
As if the bill needed further complications, there is no love lost between two strong-willed legislators who have become most closely identified with the pull-and-tug over its status.
They are Karen Peterson, the Democratic senator who is the prime sponsor of the repeal bill, and Pete Schwartzkopf, the House's Democratic speaker. This is Schwartzkopf's first session in charge, and when he revamped the House staff, one of the part-time aides he let go was Vikki Bandy, who is married to Peterson.
Peterson wants the bill out, Schwartzkopf wants it to stay in, and neither has found the leverage to make the other back off, because the sentiment in the House looks to be every bit as closely split as the Senate was, although both insist the votes among the 41 representatives are on their side.
"We're preparing to move forward in January. We think we can turn some people around to at least let it come to a vote. We have enough votes if we can get it to the floor," Peterson said.
"It's not going to go anywhere. They didn't have the votes before, and I don't think they have them now. I don't think they have 21 votes. I think they have 19," Schwartzkopf said.
Schwartzkopf, who used to be a state police troop commander, stands against the bill alongside law enforcement, which is largely opposed to it, most prominently by Beau Biden, the Democratic attorney general.
From a political standpoint, Schwartzkopf is concerned the bill could imperil the re-election of Democratic representatives who vote for repeal, particularly since 2014 is an election year. The House has 27 Democrats and 14 Republicans, all of whom will be up for election.
"That bill of all bills is one that will make us lose seats. That trumps the gun bills. That trumps the transgender bill. Let it sit and try again in 2015," Schwartzkopf said.
There are three ways a bill can come to the floor, although two of them are rarely used and can lead to hard feelings, because they circumvent the leadership.
The standard way is for a bill to be released from committee, but it can also be petitioned to the floor by a majority of the representatives, or it can be brought up by a successful motion to suspend the rules and bypass the committee.
In the case of this particular bill, all of the methods are in play, increasing the stakes even more. In fact, a petition made a short-lived appearance earlier this year, although its main effect appeared to be mostly to stoke the bad blood between Peterson and Schwartzkopf.
Even though Schwartzkopf was against the bill, he had committed himself to not blocking it. Peterson construed that commitment as extending to the petition, but Schwartzkopf let it be known he had not blessed it off.
"When you do that, it is a smack against the committee chair and a smack against leadership," Schwartzkopf said.
Representatives quickly backed away from the petition, rather than appear to go against the speaker. It led Peterson to conclude that Schwartzkopf had reneged on his commitment, although Schwartzkopf said all he did was tell people he had not okayed the petition.
Darryl Scott, the Democratic representative who is handling the bill in the House, chalked it up as one of those things. "Honestly, there was miscommunication," he said.
For now, the repeal bill sits in committee, its future uncertain. Breaking out is hard to do.