CT’s JP for a Day: What Happened
This is a blow-by-blow account of how the Justice of the Peace Association responded to proposed legislation in Connecticut, SB-396, JP for a Day, as reported by managing member, Loretta Jay.
SB-396 JP for a Day
It was late on Friday, March 2nd, when Barbara Jay received an email from Betsy Moukawsher, Groton, Connecticut’s Town Clerk, warning that a bill was introduced to the current legislative session. SB-396 said very simply that the Secretary of the State could appoint justices of the peace “to perform a single joining of persons in marriage”. The bill, coined JP for a Day, was referred to the Judiciary Committee and would have a public hearing in one week, on March 9, 2018.
Sharing this news with our members-only Facebook group was our first step. It proved to be a safe place for JPs to talk through what implementation of this bill would mean if it became law, and hash out strategies for opposition. Next, over the weekend, we developed a strategy for mobilizing an opposition to the bill and began its implementation. We didn’t have much time!
- Alert Connecticut JPs to the bill and its potential ramifications, and support their response
- Contact the Connecticut Secretary of State’s Office to determine motivation for the bill
- Engage Connecticut Town Clerks and develop a dialogue encouraging a formal opposition to the bill
- Engage Massachusetts JPs to ask about their experience with 1-Day Solemnizers
- Engage Massachusetts Town Clerks to ask about their experiences with 1-Day Solemnizers
Action Alerts to JPs:
JPus’ first Action Alert to Connecticut JPs went out a little after midnight, early on Sunday morning. We provided How-To instructions and a template for JPs to provide a written statement and/or oral testimony to the Judiciary Committee for its public hearing on March 9. You can read the statements of the nine JPus members who submitted written testimony opposing the legislation here.
We then asked Massachusetts JPs for information about how they were affected by their state’s allowance of 1-Day Solemnizers. Almost all responses were negative.
Once the work-week began JPus went into high gear, connecting with the Connecticut Town Clerk Association, the SOTS, and individual clerks. We also connected with the Massachusetts’ Town Clerk Association.
CT Town Clerks:
Our first notice about the pending bill came from a town clerk, and we followed up with a couple of others to get their perspective. I then had a couple of phone conversations and email exchanges with Mark Bernacki, the Legislative Chair for the Connecticut Town Clerk Association. By Wednesday afternoon he sent me a copy of his written statement on behalf of all of the state’s clerks expressing concerns for the bill.
MA Town Clerks:
Initially we contacted just a few Massachusetts town clerks; they were our pilot group. By Wednesday we felt that we had enough information to justify an appeal for feedback from all the state’s clerks. With a window of only one day for them to respond, they delivered loud and clear: Twenty-seven clerks replied with very strongly worded testaments about how their state’s 1-Day Solemnizer is a “nightmare for the clerks”, and describing extensive problems that result in twice as much work for their offices. Clearly they were unhappy.
Testimony Before the Judiciary Committee
March 9, 2018, a Friday, was a long day. I arrived at the Legislative Office Building (LOB) in Hartford at around 8:30 to sign up to testify before the Judiciary Committee during its public hearing – not just for me, but JPus member Shelley Schulman was going to testify too. Oftentimes the sign-up is first come, first served. Not today. Testimony was based on lottery and I drew high numbers. It would be a long day.
I had already submitted a digital copy of JPus’ written statement to the Judiciary Committee. Five pages is the maximum allowed, which meant we had to limit and abbreviate the Massachusetts town clerks’ testaments. That was tough. We also provided a hard-copy of our statement to the legislators, so they had it in hand while the hearing was going on.
At around noon Secretary of State Denise Merrill testified in favor of the bill. She said she initiated this legislation to make couples happy; her office fields 5-6 requests a year from the public who wants to have a friend or family member officiate at their wedding. Secretary Merrill was the only person besides Shelley and me to testify on the bill.
Finally at 4:30 it was my turn to speak before the Committee. My comments summarized the written statement that was already submitted; in addition to outlining the numerous problems with a lay-JP, I suggested that the JP could coach the friend, but still witness the ceremony and submit the paperwork to the clerk’s office. Though many of the legislators left the hearing before I spoke, I did receive additional questions from a couple of members of the Judiciary Committee.
A little bit later Justice Shelley Schulman testified and did a terrific job explaining how JPs are professionals who invest time, personal expense and training to hone their skills and make sure that they are completing their officiant duties properly.
CT Secretary of the State’s Office
On March 5th I spoke with staff attorney for the SOTS office, Bernie Liu, who drafted the bill proposal. He said that the previous SOTS, Susan Bysiewicz, initiated the JP for a Day concept, and that its intention was not to raise revenue.
After the public hearing I sent an email to Secretary of State Denise Merrill reiterating our concerns and proposing alternatives to JP for a Day that would protect municipal clerks from having the additional burden of managing the amateur JP, and prevent professional JPs from feeling marginalized. Subsequent discussions with the Secretary’s Chief of Staff, Shannon Wegele, went into greater detail, appealing to the office to drop its support for the bill.
Working with Legislators
During the long wait on March 9th, I met with State Representative Cristin McCarthy Vahey who represents Fairfield – where JPus is based. She quickly became an advocate and texted Secretary Merrill’s chief of staff making that first introduction. She also introduced me to State Representative Jeff Currey, who sits on the Judiciary Committee. During a conversation on the rotunda of the LOB he listened attentively to our concerns for JP for a Day.
A week later, on Friday, March 15, Representative McCarthy Vahey texted me that she spoke with the Vice Chair of the Judiciary Committee, Representative Steve Stafstrom and filled him in on our concerns. On March 24th he replied to my follow-up email saying, “I think the bill is likely to die without a vote of the committee.”
The current legislative session ended on May 9th and the bill died in committee! Vice Chair Stafstrom’s email proved to be true. The Justice of the Peace Association is continuing our efforts to engage with the Secretary of State’s office to both quash future efforts to revise this bill, and to identify a solution that eliminates the office’s sense that this would be needed in the future. The bill’s history can be checked here.