When I began my service as Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary five years ago, I said I’d be glad to stay in the job for 10 or 15 years — there is so much to do and learn in the role.
Shifting to my new role as President Pro Tempore, I can look back on the last 5 years with some satisfaction, although I’ve left plenty for the next chair to do.
Lesson number one from the experience: Always seek to collaborate. The Archdiocese was rumored to be opposed to our proposed bill to give victims of child sexual abuse more time to seek legal redress. But when Representative John Lawn and I reached out to Cardinal O’Malley we were able to begin a constructive conversation that led to a big step forward for victims.
My House Chair, Claire Cronin, and I were able to take advantage of the movement for criminal justice reform and deliver a significant criminal justice reform bill above all because we formed a close working partnership, always retaining a sense of shared goals as we struggled over differences.
Our success in criminal justice reform also depended on our systematically reaching out to every single one of our colleagues to understand their hopes and concerns about reform. We were then able to craft a package that passed both branches with extraordinary majorities.
The long-term staff in the executive and judicial branches tend to be able offer deep expertise, as can many private attorneys. Reaching out to them and incorporating their good ideas and their reactions to our ideas contributed enormously to the quality of the criminal justice bill.
Lesson number two: Always listen when others speak from experience. One of the big elements in the final criminal justice bill is the reform of solitary confinement. I had been more focused on the issue of reducing the prison population than on the issue of what we do to people while they are in prison. People who were close to people in solitary made me understand the need for and possibility of reform in solitary confinement. That ended up being one of the reforms that I felt most strongly about. The bill benefitted in countless other ways from the voices of people affected by the system.
A third lesson, go big when you can. When I started as chair, I believed that I could make meaningful progress by passing enough bills making incremental changes. And that was not wrong. We did a number of what I call “stewardship bills” that gave me satisfaction — legislation making needed changes just to keep the system running smoothly and fairly, often in response to court decisions or federal law changes. Some of these were quite significant, most notably our rewrite of the statute governing juvenile murder cases.
But when it was clear we had a green light to do a big criminal justice bill, my team assembled essentially every good bill that had been languishing for years into a single package. That single package accomplished far more than I could possibly accomplish in several lifetimes of incremental legislating.
I also feel fortunate to have been chair when the second transgender rights bill came through. That was a simple bill culminating an important movement that had been fully built by advocates. Resolving the few remaining points of controversy and getting the bill across the finish line was special for me — nothing feels more right than standing up for civil rights.
It’s worth noting that much of the Judiciary Chair’s job is playing defense. A host of bills every year respond emotionally to tragedies or adverse outcomes in litigation. Most of these bills have unintended consequences and should not move forward, but saying no to them means disappointing people who have already had bad experiences.
I am grateful for the opportunity I had to serve as Judiciary Chair. I am hopeful that my new role in the Senate opens a new and even more interesting chapter.