Monday, March 09, 2009

Five Senators and the Death Penalty

The failure of death penalty repeal in Maryland came down to the actions of five Senators. Here is their story.

To understand the part played by these five, we must first understand the sequence of the major floor votes on the death penalty. First, Senate President Mike Miller allowed the chamber to vote on whether to substitute the repeal bill for an unfavorable report from the Judiciary Proceedings Committee. This vote succeeded by a 25-22 margin and started full Senate debate on the bill.

Next, Senator James Brochin (D-42) proposed an amendment that forbade use of the death penalty in cases relying solely on eyewitness testimony. That amendment effectively changed the purpose of the bill from repeal to restrictions on the use of the death penalty. The amendment passed by a 25-21 margin, with one Senator later changing his vote to produce a 24-22 outcome.

After another amendment by Senator Robert Zirkin (D-11), Senator E.J. Pipkin (R-36) moved to send the bill back to the Judiciary Proceedings Committee. His motion would have preserved the status quo: the death penalty would have been left unchanged. It failed 23-23, keeping restrictions on the death penalty alive.

These five Senators played key roles:

Alex Mooney (R-3)

Mooney, a social conservative on most issues, was considered a swing vote on death penalty repeal. He voted to send repeal to the floor, voted for the Brochin amendment and voted to send it back to committee. Mooney was the only GOP Senator to support a floor vote. He favored amending the bill and then killing it.

John Astle (D-30)

Astle, an Anne Arundel Democrat who often has close general elections, refused to answer the Sun’s question on his death penalty position. He voted with death penalty opponents against sending repeal to the floor and initially voted for the Brochin amendment, which would have preserved the death penalty. But Astle, who said he was “wrestling” with repeal, later changed his vote to oppose the Brochin amendment. His vote change would not have defeated the Brochin amendment because it merely altered the margin from 25-21 to 24-22. Astle then voted against recommitting the bill, effectively preserving it in its amended form. He is sure to face questions about his decision-making.

Jennie Forehand (D-17)

The Sun listed Forehand as favoring repeal but she did not co-sponsor the 2009, 2008 or 2007 repeal bills. Forehand voted along with repeal supporters to send the bill to the floor. But she missed the Brochin amendment vote (which initially passed by 25-21 but later had a 24-22 margin after Astle’s vote change). Forehand told the Sun that she was in the amendment room during the Brochin vote. She later voted against recommitting the bill to committee.

Our sources cannot explain why Forehand missed the Brochin amendment vote. When Senators wish to introduce floor amendments, they do not have to physically visit the amendment room – they can just place phone calls. Furthermore, on high-profile votes, legislators who are interested in having their votes recorded rarely leave during those votes. Forehand’s departure was inexplicable, especially considering the fact that she never introduced an amendment.

Nevertheless, even if she had stayed and voted against the Brochin amendment, it would still have passed 24-23 (assuming Astle had voted against it as well). Forehand’s action by itself did not determine the bill’s fate.

Rona Kramer (D-14)

Kramer did not answer the Sun’s question on her repeal position. She voted to send the bill to the floor, voted for the Brochin amendment and voted against recommitting it. Effectively, she acted to restrict but not kill the death penalty. If both Astle and Kramer had voted against the Brochin amendment, it would have failed by a 23-23 vote. Kramer was therefore a critical player in stopping outright repeal.

Andy Harris (R-7)

As conservative blogger Brian Griffiths originally pointed out, Harris missed the recommit vote, which failed 23-23. If Harris had been present to vote in favor of recommitting, the death penalty restrictions in the Brochin amendment would have been struck down and the status quo would have been preserved. Recommit sponsor E. J. Pipkin will be sure to use this against Harris if the two run against each again for Congress.

As for Mike Miller, he is the ultimate winner. Miller gave the Governor and the many repeal supporters in his chamber the courtesy of a floor vote. The ultimate outcome was to preserve the death penalty (as Miller favors), even in a restricted form. Miller kept the debate to a couple days, thereby retaining control over the Senate’s business. And if the House passes anything different, both proposals will fail because the Senate will not go to conference.

Mike Miller was able to pull this off because he knows every one of his Senators – and just as importantly, their districts – better than anyone in Annapolis. He was probably able to forecast every single one of the above events within one or two votes. He knew repeal supporters did not have enough votes to prevail and let them have their day. His acumen is the product of twenty years experience in his position, thorough knowledge of Senate history and constant study of three generations of his colleagues.

And as for Senators Mooney, Astle, Forehand, Kramer and Harris? They will now have to face the consequences, for better or worse, of their actions in the Great Maryland Death Penalty Debate of 2009.