Remarks on Receiving the MBA's Legislator of the Year Award
REMARKS ON RECEIVING THE MBA’S LEGISLATOR OF THE YEAR AWARD
MARCH 11, 2010
Thank you very much for this honor.
I must begin by saying how humbled I am to be sharing the stage tonight with the great Morris Dees. As you all know, for decades he’s been on the front lines in the fight for civil rights in this country, continually putting himself in harm’s way to stand as a bulwark against anti-Semitism, racism, sexism and homophobia.
In the State House, people respect those who are willing to ‘walk the walk’ much more than those who simply ‘talk the talk.’
Mr. Dees is such a man.
I’m proud to say this evening as I receive this great honor from all of you, that the battles for fairness, equity, and justice spanning a diverse range of subjects and citizens continues to be a priority for myself and the members of the Committee I chair.
Of course, we in Massachusetts are no strangers to the fight for civil rights. In the 1800’s, the state was dotted with stops on the Underground Railroad – including the Jackson Homestead in my city of Newton. In the early 1900’s the right of children to be educated and also be spared the harsh labor imposed by long days in our mills and factories secured our reputation as a place where the rights of all matter. More recently, we became the first state to recognize same-sex marriages, and I’m proud to have been a small part of the successful effort to extend that right to others who wish to commit themselves in permanent, loving environments.
But these fights continue to this very session of the Legislature.
The Judiciary Committee, which I co-chair, is considering legislation to protect transgender individuals from discrimination. This bill is co-sponsored by me and more than half of the Legislature, yet amazingly it still faces strong opposition from many powerful voices.
We also have before us this year a bill that would strengthen the ban on racial profiling, which remains an unfair burden on far too many of our citizens.
As you can tell, today the fight for civil rights continues on a number of fronts. For example, the sentencing reform I will talk about shortly can easily be viewed through that lens, at a time when women and people of color are disproportionately incarcerated for drug crimes. Similarly, CORI reform, which the Senate passed last fall, will change the way the state provides information on criminal background checks.
Although the effort to make criminal histories easily available to certain employers and landlords was well-intentioned, there is no doubt that it has impaired the ability of too many non dangerous ex-offenders to find the jobs and housing they need to reintegrate as law abiding and taxpaying members of our community.
Moreover, it will shock few in this room this evening that the burdens of the current CORI system falls most heavily upon people of color. We must, and can, do better.
I also have two important bills designed to make sure that when we send someone to prison, we’re sending the person responsible for the crime.
My first bill would provide, when certain requirements are met, a procedure for post-conviction analysis of DNA and other forensic evidence when such testing could exonerate a wrongly convicted inmate.
Unfortunately, lack of access to this evidence is one rare civil-rights area where Massachusetts is not a leader.
Last year’s US Supreme Court decision in DA v. Osborne cast a spotlight on the fact that the Commonwealth is now one of only three states which currently offers no such mechanism as a way to right a wrong.
My second bill on this issue would provide a standard for conducting eyewitness identifications, one that would incorporate best practices now in use across the country. Any failure to meet this standard could be offered as evidence at trial, in support of a motion to suppress identification, and as the basis for a jury instruction.
Prison is the greatest deprivation of civil rights the state can impose on a fellow citizen, and we must do all we can to ensure when we do so we get it right!!
After all, for each and every wrongful conviction, there is a real criminal responsible for that crime that is still out on the streets possibly committing yet other crimes. Getting the right felon and imposing the appropriate sentence builds respect and confidence in a criminal justice system. That is my goal as Chair of the State Senate Judiciary Committee, and my promise to you who have chosen me to receive this great honor this evening.
All of these efforts, and too many more than I have time to share with you this evening, are critical to guaranteeing that in the 21st century, Massachusetts will continue to be a beacon throughout the nation on civil rights, just as my fellow honoree Morris Dees and his Southern Policy Law Center have been a beacon of justice for nearly four decades.
Before I close, there are two more issues that briefly deserve special mention.
Some years ago, I was the MBA section chair for family law. What I recall most vividly is how tough and daunting a task it was to go before the House of Delegates. Back then, as today, it was a group from all across the Commonwealth, with various interests and a broad range of opinions on the issues.
I can honestly say that even after eleven years of debates and committee hearings as a State Senator, and as someone who’s been in front of my share of demanding judges as well, nothing was as challenging as appearing before the House of Delegates.
Yet I remember the experience fondly, because I couldn’t have asked for better preparation for elected office. I truly could not be the State Senator I am today had it not been for that experience. I have certainly relied on this experience – perhaps never more than this session, my first as Senate Chair of the Judiciary Committee – a committee that reviews more than 1000 bills on a range of topics as diverse as the field of law itself.
One of those important issues is the issue of legal services. The justice system is only as strong as its weakest link, and when we underfund legal services, we undermine the system’s ability to produce justice.
As for my own commitment to legal services, I have carried that with me into the Legislature, where the key battlegrounds are over not judgeships but budgets and resources. Obviously, these are extremely trying times, economically, for Massachusetts. And it pains me to acknowledge that the legal-services groups have had to make do with less over the past couple of years. But I have always used my position and all the influence I have to fight to minimize or reverse those cuts every year.
The second issue that has presented perhaps the greatest challenge I have faced as a State Senator is sentencing reform. This year, for the first time since I introduced it, the Judiciary Committee released my proposal for sentencing reform with a favorable report. That bill would offer parole eligibility to inmates serving mandatory-minimum sentences solely for non-violent drug offenses.
Before the legislation reached the Senate floor, we were able to expand this measure into a comprehensive bill that makes a variety of criminal-justice reforms -- as well as implementing the CORI reform that I spoke of earlier.
The bill passed the Senate in November and is now before the House. I continue to fight for its enactment, and the biggest challenge may yet lie in front of us. But again, thanks to my work with the MBA, it is a challenge I feel I’m prepared to undertake. And I must note that we would not have been able to advance even this far without the strong support of the MBA.
In closing, I’d like to acknowledge that I owe a special debt of gratitude to Past President David White, who made this the signal issue of his term. President White organized a Drug Policy Task Force that issued a report – “The Failure of the War on Drugs: Charting a New Course for the Commonwealth”. And much of that report has been incorporated into the Senate criminal-justice package – from the diversion of pre-trial detainees out of our houses of correction, where appropriate, to enhanced opportunities for work-release, parole and good-conduct credit.
Our work is not done, and I am grateful to the MBA and its members who have played an important role in shaping many of the bills I have spoken about tonight, as well as on many other issues facing the Commonwealth. I know that the MBA will continue to fight for these important issues, and I look forward, as always, to meeting these challenges with you.
I’m VERY proud to be a member of our profession, and I hope the work I do in the future will make you proud that you selected to honor me this evening with this wonderful award.