NH Special Marriage Officiants: What Happened

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In the spring of 2019, the Justice of the Peace Association persisted in its opposition to the New Hampshire House Bill 295-FN-A, an act establishing a special marriage officiant license. Despite the odds, the bill eventually died in conference. Following is what transpired.

It was early January 2019 when New Hampshire Justice of the Peace Cynthia Dumont called JPus to alert us to HB 295-FN-A. This bill, if passed, would temporarily authorize an individual to solemnize a marriage in the state. JPus members in Massachusetts and Vermont made us aware of how amateur officiants have negatively impacted their business. The town clerks describe how lay officiants are loose with the law. They jeopardize the validity of marriages and create unfunded mandates for municipalities. As such, we knew that there would be many problems if the bill was enacted in New Hampshire.

Building Allies

When we first learned about the pending bill, JPus mobilized its stakeholders. We sent an alert to our New Hampshire members advising about the situation, and provided a JP guide to help communication with legislators. We also contacted the Secretary of State’s office and the NH Town Clerk Association. While specific members of the NH Town Clerk Association were opposed to the bill, as an organization they decided to “just watch”. They did not formally oppose the bill.

Our goal is to work with the people who have differing opinions in order to achieve a win-win solution. To that end, JPus proposed ways for JPs to witness ceremonies and complete the legal aspects of the marriage. Additionally, because the underlying motivation was to promote destination weddings, we offered to collaborate to support this too.

The House

Judiciary Committee

JPus Managing Member, Loretta Jay, reached out to the sponsor of the bill, Representative Robert “Renny” Cushing, along with some of its cosponsors. We weren’t heard. When we testified opposing the bill, before the House Judiciary Committee on January 16, 2019, the response was cool. Representative Cushing objected to an out-of-state organization “interfering”.

Following the hearing, JPus’ Loretta Jay spoke with some of the members of the committee. They listened, but didn’t indicate their inclination. Email and telephone communication didn’t get very far either. One committee member who also cosponsored the bill seemed to share some of the concerns outlined, but didn’t want to go against the bill’s sponsor. She said she would follow his lead. The bill passed out of committee 11 to 8, along party lines.

Ways and Means Committee

Later in March, before the House Ways and Means Committee, we had a better plan. While JPus submitted written testimony and spoke before the legislature, this time 29 NH JPs and members of JPus signed onto our statement. The Representatives were much more receptive. Because it was Ways and Means, the focus had to be on fiscal matters. JPus provided both oral and written testimony. Though we thought we adequately addressed the fiscal note, members of the committee indicated that they would vote in favor of the bill. They appreciated that our statement was signed by residents of the state, and we were encouraged us to bring our concerns to the the Senate. The bill passed again, first in the committee and then the full House.

The Senate

At the Judiciary Committee’s hearing on April 23, 2019, Chair Hennessey introduced the bill in glowing terms. Like the previous hearings, Representative Cushing made his case for why he thought the bill should pass. Again, JPus testified and submitted a written statement. The bill passed, 3-2, and was sent to the full Senate; the judicial committee report said that it “ought to pass”.

The bill came before the full Senate for a roll call vote. No public testimony was heard so we were only able to submit a written statement. We submitted our statement, signed by 43 JPs and JPus members, to the Senate to be part of the record. In addition, we emailed each senator a copy. The Senate added an amendment and passed the bill – again along party lines.

The End

By all (public) accounts, the bill seemed a sure-thing. In anticipation, JPus presented the situation to the governor. A couple of back-and-forth exchanges with staffers and we were encouraged to wait until the bill officially comes to his desk for signing. Our hope was that after hearing our concerns he would object and veto it. We were taken by surprise when our preemptive efforts became unnecessary.

After the senate’s changes, the amended bill returned to the House for another vote. It went to conference, but wasn’t called back to the Senate for a vote. Representative Woodbury, a supporter of the bill, wrote in an email to JPus’ Loretta Jay, “The bill died because the Senate President refused to honor the negotiated settlement reached by the House and Senate conferees.” The policy director for the Senate Majority’s Office explained that Senate President Soucy let the bill die because “a few complications, including those raised by the JPus membership, couldn’t be reconciled at this time.”

Related Links

JPus submitted written testimony to the NH legislature at various junctures:

  • January 16, 2019 to the House Judiciary Committee
  • March 6, 2019 to the House Ways and Means Committee
  • April 23, 2019 to the Senate Judiciary Committee
  • May 30, 2019 to all members of the Senate
  • The Justice of the Peace Association is busy addressing the problems with amateur officiants in other states, as well. For instance, JPus submitted a One-Day Solemnizer Rule white paper to Massachusetts Governor Baker’s office that summarizes the problems with temporary officiants in the state. These problems would likely happen in New Hampshire too, if the bill was enacted.