NH 1599 – What Happened 2020

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Updated July 13, 2020
When it comes to amateur officiants in New Hampshire, the Justice of the Peace Association fights diligently on behalf of our members.That is because logic and righteousness are on our side. We’ve done the research. We’ve explored alternatives. We’ve built allies. And we played by the rules.

A Quick Summary

In June 2019, the legislative session ended with an upset. The special marriage officiant bill died after the Senate President blocked it – based on the problems raised by JPus. While we were successful, we also knew that our work wasn’t done. The bill would be reintroduced the following year.

June 2020: The pandemic threw procedure out the window. Despite JPus’ efforts, HB 1599 made its way to the full House of Representatives. But, then infighting between parties interfered with an agreement to suspend rules and the temporary officiant bill died. Not deterred, a floor amendment was attached to a different Senate bill and it passed with barely an acknowledgement, nor notice for us to advocate to the senators. Efforts are now focused on the Governor, and seeking an executive order blocking implementation of temporary officiant authorization.

The following is JPus Managing Member Loretta Jay’s description of her behind-the-scenes activity advocating for our membership. A lot happened, and with the pandemic in-between some of the session’s activities seem so far away. For this reason, we’re starting with the most recent first. 

The Senate: June, 2020

On June 16, 2020 Senator Sharon Carson, Chair of the Executive Departments and Administration committee, introduced amendments to HB1491. There was no discussion about the special marriage officiant amendment and it passed the Senate. Thanks to JP Cindy Dumont for keeping alerting us to the surprising news and sharing this link that shows the video feed of the introduction (2:32-2:38).

I spoke with the Senate Clerk, Tammy Wright, on Wednesday morning, June 17th. She said that because of COVID, nothing is as usual – things are happening this session that she has never seen in her 30 years working in the Clerk’s office. She said all amendments were posted four days before on the calendar – and that is all that the Senate must do to notify constituents of changes. This is hardly adequate. Each calendar is hundreds of pages long. For instance, the calendar that included the special marriage officiant amendment had 347 pages to it! More infighting between the parties, resulted in another surprise – it didn’t pass the House. This iteration died.

Not to be outdone, Senator Hennessey, a cosponsor of the original bill, shrewdly added a floor amendment including special officiant language onto a bill protecting children from sexual assault. No one wants to vote against that! No advanced notice to constituents whatsoever, and an extremely vague introduction that didn’t alert her fellow senators to the significance of the amendment. Joining her were Senators Rosenwald and Feltes; they lumped the marriage officiant language into other procedural information. Their actions were disingenuous – and calculated. A recording of the hearing is available; the introduction begins at 3:04:42.

My frustration was loud and clear in an email exchange with Senator Rosenwald about what transpired. Senator Hennessey and Senate President Soucy were both copied on the exchange. After two years of doggedly pursuing a just outcome, their maneuvering left us powerless. It is one thing if the senators heard our concerns and still voted for temporary officiants. But that is not what happened. Instead they were manipulated to support it.

A Veto?

I spoke with Dave Scanlon, Deputy Secretary of State. He said he’d speak with colleagues in the Governor’s office and let them know that this bill is problematic. He also guided me to Governor Sununu’s Legislative Director and Legal Counsel. The ask: For him to issue an executive order blocking implementation of temporary officiants. Because of the pandemic, the risks to the community increase the urgency.
There is no line-item veto option in the state, so a veto would require the entire bill to be blocked. In June I had a couple of phone calls with Governor Sununu’s legislative director, Chris Ellms. The bill that the floor amendment is attached to protects children from sexual predators. Of course no one wants that to be vetoed. We discussed how lay officiants put the public at greater risk. If they cannot file paperwork properly, how will they ensure safe social distancing is occurring? The pandemic makes temporary officiant problems more urgent. Perhaps the Governor will consider a stay blocking the implementation of the rule. This would give us time to pursue a modification next year.

The Media

Working the system and playing nice wasn’t cutting it. In early March we sent emails and made calls to three newspapers: the Concord Monitor, the Keene Sentinel and the Union Leader. Then the pandemic hit and there wasn’t any interest in stories that weren’t related to the coronavirus.
After the June shenanigans in the Senate I sent an op-ed to the Union Leader asking Governor Sununu to issue an executive order blocking authorization for temporary officiants.


The Backstory

Getting Ready for the Session

We got to work on the 2020 bill as soon as the 2019 session ended. This started with outreach to the various stakeholders to better understand what transpired. Good to have the lay of the land to build upon what message resonated. And, to understand what didn’t.
Dan Mason, the House Majority’s policy director was supportive, and tried to make introductions to friendlies. In September, I had a terrific meeting with Senator Soucy’s Chief of Staff, Alan Raff. We met at his Concord office, at the state Capitol. He indicated both an understanding of the problems with the special marriage officiant bill, as well as the challenges working with the House. Its Democratic members are in lockstep with Representative Cushing, despite their own admissions to having misgivings about the bill. Alan said that our proposed modified language to the bill reflected minimal change, and he thought Senator Soucy would embrace them.
In October, Alan told me on a phone call that he expected an alternative bill to be submitted, with language similar to what JPus suggested. And then, nothing. In December Senator Soucy’s Executive Assistant sent me the language of HB 1599: Representative Renny Cushing submitted a new bill with virtually the same language as last year.

Our Stakeholders

Secretary of State’s Office

In August 2019 Dave Scanlon, Deputy Secretary of State, suggested that JPus propose alternative language to the special marriage officiant bill. We did, and shared it with other stakeholders. In February, on the suggestion of Representative Tim Horrigan, we again reached out to Mr. Scanlon and Dean Dexter, who runs the Vital Records Committee. That didn’t go very far.

New Hampshire City and Town Clerk Association
Last year the NH Town Clerk’s Association decided to “just watch” what happened with the bill, even though they were opposed to it. This year they became allies. First VP Sherry Farrell (Town Clerk in Londonderry) took the lead for the group. She testified to the House Judiciary Committee opposing the bill. And she is JPus’ conduit to the organization.
Domestic Violence Services

Like last year, the special marriage officiant bill raises funding for the state’s domestic violence services. DVS, of course, welcomes the much needed funding, but they are not invested in what the language of the bill looks like. Last year, in August, I spoke with Jessica Eskeland, the Legislative Director at New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. It is a sticky situation. While willing to work with JPus to promote a bill that will satisfy all stakeholders, her organization needs the funds and likely doesn’t want to rock the boat.

The House of Representatives: January – June, 2020

Efforts to work with the state’s legislators have proven to be an eye-opening, and frustrating, experience. The lead sponsor, Representative Renny Cushing, is powerful. Fellow Democrats have said, many of them openly, that they will not cross him. Even those who have indicated support for JPus’ position, and who have expressed apprehension about the bill as written, have said that we need to get Rep Cushing to embrace the changes and then they’ll follow.

The problem? Representative Cushing initially refused to talk about the problems with the bill. And then he went silent, ignoring all communication.

A few Republicans voted against the bill. One Republican Representative was willing to submit a bill with our modified language. But, he said, it will go nowhere unless it is sponsored by a Democrat. Such is the state of our partisan politics.

Judiciary Committee

JPus submitted testimony, signed by 48 NH JPs, to the House Judiciary Committee. Only one lone Democrat, Representative Tim Horrigan, voted against the bill, so it passed 11-9. He called me after the vote to say that he shares our concerns with the bill. Rep Horrigan is on the Vital Records Committee, under the Secretary of State’s Office, and he encouraged involving them.

Ways and Means Committee

On March 3, 2020, I sent a copy of JPus’ testimony to the Ways and Means Committee to each member, asking them to vote No. Several days later Representative Susan Almy wrote to say that they would not be discussing the bill at their work session as there were other more pressing matters. She expected the Committee to vote affirmatively, and she encouraged me to bring the matter up with the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Now, I appreciate Representative Almy taking the time to write to me directly to let us know what she planned to do. But, I was very disappointed at what she said. I replied that I thought it was a disservice to the state’s JPs who would be directly impacted if the bill was enacted, the 58 JPs who signed our statement, as well as all taxpayers in New Hampshire. Representative Almy agreed, and despite the pressing schedule, she read JPus’ testimony into the record when HB1599 was discussed on March 9, 2020 at 2:15pm.

Over the weekend I spoke with Republican Representative Jess Edwards. He opposes any association between marriage and domestic violence. Consequently, he objects to fees from the bill being directed to domestic violence services. Initially, he said he’d include our proposed language in the amendment he planned to submit. But, later, he emailed to say I wouldn’t like his amendment – our language was not included. Because of the pandemic the Ways and Means Committee’s vote was postponed until May. It then passed before going to the full House for a vote.

The Full House

There are 400 members in the NH House. The minority (Republicans) who oppose the bill determined on June 2nd that it is ineffective to legislate. Meaning, they are not going to put up a fight because they will likely lose. JPus isn’t actively opposing the bill in the full House either. We won’t be effective trying to contact and convince 400 – or even 200 Representatives. On the other hand, the Senators are known as “the adults in the room.” There are only 24 of them, and we will work to reach each one and help them understand why this bill is wrong for New Hampshire.

Because of risks due to the coronavirus, the House of Representatives is meeting at the University of New Hampshire’s Whittemore Center in Durham. The shortened session meant  typical rules of the House would need to be suspended to get through the docket. I watched by live stream, and at times the hearings were quite contentious. Representatives bickered over whether or not face masks needed to be worn during the hearing (they did), and which bills should receive special consideration. In order for HB1599 to go forward, two thirds of the House had to vote in favor of suspending the rules to allow a vote. They didn’t. HB1599 died.

On June 12, 2012, I spoke with the House of Representative’s Clerk’s office. He said it was unlikely that HB1599 would receive another vote and go onto the Senate. The session is scheduled to end on June 30th. Unfortunately, that was not the end of it. See The Senate, above.


On June 15th JPus hosted a Zoom Q&A to answer questions about the bill. The intention was to support those who want to have a solid understanding of what transpired, and what may happen next. And it would prepare JPs to advocate in opposition to the bill, if necessary. The Q&A took place before we were aware that the Senate had amended a bill with special marriage officiant language. An Action Alert provided instruction to contact Senators by phone and email, asking them to vote No.

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