Did you know that we have a law in NC that requires a government committee of high-ranking officials to explain to voters what they are voting on when it comes to constitutional amendments?
It’s called the “Constitutional Amendments Publication Commission” which is established within the NC Secretary of State’s office (N.C.G.S. 147-54.8), and has three members, the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, and the Legislative Services Officer.
The Commission has a simple job, at least according to the statute. All it has to do is meet at least 60 days before the vote on the proposed amendment to the Constitution, “prepare an explanation of the amendment… in simple and commonly used language” and then print and distribute the explanation with a news release to each county board of elections.
The job of the commission was recently completed on Amendment One. You will find the explanation of the Commission, if you go to board of election websites, such as http://charmeck.org/mecklenburg/county/BOE/Documents/Offical_Explanation_of_Amendment.pdf
Here is the official explanation adopted by the Commission:
Paragraph One: “A current North Carolina law enacted in 1996 says that marriage between individuals of the same-sex is not valid in North Carolina. This amendment would make that concept part of the North Carolina Constitution. If this amendment is passed by the voters, then under state law it can only be changed by another vote of the people”.
Paragraph Two: “The term “domestic legal union” used in the amendment is not defined in North Carolina law. There is debate among legal experts about how this proposed constitutional amendment may impact North Carolina law as it relates to unmarried couples of same or opposite sex and same-sex couples legally married in another state, particularly in regard to employment-related benefits for domestic partners; domestic violence laws; child custody and visitation rights; and end-of-life arrangements. The courts will ultimately make those decisions”.
Paragraph Three: “The amendment also says that private parties may still enter into contracts creating rights enforceable against each other. This means that unmarried persons, businesses and other private parties may be able to enter into agreements establishing personal rights, responsibilities, or benefits as to each other. The courts will decide the extent to which such contracts can be enforced”.
In a March 2, 2012 associated press article, http://www.wcnc.com/home/-NC-marriage-question-explanation-OKd-by-panel–141165713.html, it was reported that neither side was happy with the Commission’s description of the proposed amendment.
It was reported that:”Nowhere in it does it say that the main purpose of the amendment is to preserve the current definition of marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman,” said Tami Fitzgerald, chairwoman of the committee leading the pro-amendment Vote FOR Marriage NC.
It also was reported that: “Alex Miller, co-chairman of the anti-amendment Coalition to Protect North Carolina Families, said it should have pointed out more clearly the negative results upon domestic violence laws, child custody agreements and end-of-life directives if the amendment is approved. Instead, the explanation says, the courts ultimately would decide the effect and the extent to which private contracts could be enforced to offer benefits to unmarried people. It also leaves out completely that local governments could no longer offer benefits to domestic partners of their employees, Miller said”.
If the issue were as clear as supporters and opponents of the amendment suggest, there would be no dispute about the explanation of the amendment, nor would the Commission reference the uncertainty of the amendment. In fact, the very uncertainty of the legal effects of this amendment is one of the truths about it.
Like that final scene in “Miracle on 34th Street”, where the U.S. Postal Service, a recognized arm of the federal government, proved the existence of Santa Claus when it delivered letters to Santa at the courthouse where he was on trial, the Constitutional Amendments Publication Commission, a recognized arm of the NC government, has proved the existence of a point worth considering, when it delivered its missive to the public.
As the Commission has said, there is “a debate among legal experts” about the effects of this amendment. Ironically, the very courts that the supporters feared when pushing to pass this amendment, will have to sort all these issues out, because according to the Commission, “the courts will ultimately make those decisions”.
So, are the opponents correct that a laundry list of harms actually will occur? Yes and no. Some harms definitely will occur for some people, like the inability of local governments to continue to give domestic partner benefits to same-sex couples. This is because the state will not (by Constitutional directive) be able to recognize such a “domestic legal union”.
And yet, many other harms are not certain but are possible, a valid reason to consider voting no. For example, it is very possible that Courts may be constrained by the amendment to enter rulings that are harmful to individuals in all the areas mentioned by the opponents, rulings that would not have been made before the amendment. Another problem is that judges may disagree at the local levels on these issues and these inconsistent rulings could take years to sort out.
Interestingly, it has been reported that very few people will read the explanation by the Commission. And yet, unlike the last constitutional amendment that was easy to understand — in November 2010, voters were asked whether they agreed that the constitution should bar convicted felons from becoming county sheriffs — this time around the question is much more complicated than it seems.
Many people will not understand that by voting for a one man and one woman marriage, (with the language as it is written), their vote will actually hurt people in some cases and potentially harm people in other situations. Some supporters won’t care who they hurt if they can win the marriage debate, or alternatively, they will refuse to believe that anyone will be hurt, instead buying into the idea that the opposition is spewing “lies” to help pursue what they perceive as their slippery slope gay agenda.
However, if the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, and the Legislative Services Officer all say it is unclear what the impact will be on “unmarried couples of same or opposite sex”, maybe we should listen. After all, just like the Post Office, they are an official body, and a recognized arm of the government.