Wednesday, January 12, 2011

HB 604: Repeal the State Sodomy Law

HB 604 by Jessica Farrar (D-Houston) would remove the crime of "homosexual conduct" from Texas' Penal Code as well as several rules based on that law that require Texas school children to be taught that "Homosexuality is not a valid lifestyle choice".

You may recall that in 2004 the Supreme Court of the United States declared the Texas sodomy law (which is Penal Code 21.06) unconstitutional in Lawrence v. Texas. What many people do not realize is that the law, although now unenforceable, is still on the books. While it might seem a simple matter of housekeeping to remove it thus far most state lawmakers have seemed too afraid of being accused of being "pro-sodomy" to do anything about it.

Last session Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) filed this exact bill (word for word) (HB 3028). It was sent to the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee which referred it to a sub committee. When a committee has a large number of bills to consider the chair may, at their discretion, appoint sub committees - which usually look at groups of bills on similar topics and then make recommendations to the whole committee.

The Chair of the Criminal Jurisprudence committee last session was Pete Gallego who has a solid record of voting for the best interest of the LGBT community. Gallego referred HB 3028 to a subcommittee - who then did nothing with it.

It's tempting to blame the subcommittee (which did include virulent homophobes Wayne Christian and Debbie Riddle) and it's tempting to blame Gallego for referring it to subcommittee, but the real culprit is the calendar.

The legislature meets for 140 days every other year. In that 140 days all of the business of the state must be completed. Anything left undone on day 141 must wait another two years. In addition there are many deadlines along the way. One deadline is the 60th day of the session: the last day to file new bills - which in 2009 fell on March 14. HB 3028 was filed just four days before the deadline, on March 10. After a bill is filed it must be read on the House floor and referred to committee, because of the shear volume of bills this takes a few days. HB 3028 was read and referred on March 17.

But it's not like HB 3028 was the only bill the Criminal Jurisprudence committee had to consider. By this point in the session there were hundreds of bills waiting in the committee for the chair to refer to subcommittee. Chairman Gallego referred HB 3028 on March 30, which is actually pretty fast in legislative terms. By this time another major deadline was looming, the 120th day of the session on May 14, which was the last day for bills to be considered on the House floor.

Between the subcommittee and the House floor were several additional steps the bill would have to surmount to meet the May 14th deadline: hearing in subcommittee - report by subcommittee to committee - hearing in committee - vote in committee - committee report filed with "calendar" committee (which decides the order bills will be considered on the floor) - placement on the House schedule and then waiting in line behind every other bill for consideration on the floor of the House. With only 6 weeks to go before the deadline there was not much point in the subcommittee pursuing the bill, especially not with all the work on other bills that lay before them.

Which is why I'm happy to see that Farrar has taken over this bill and decided to file it today, on the 2nd day of the session. Getting a bill towards the front of the line is a huge step in getting it passed.

It's still by no means a sure thing, there are at least 37 incumbent members of the House who have historically voted against anything that is good for the queer community, and with 34 first-time representatives in the 82nd legislature it's hard to predict how bills will do. There is hope, however, that this year this tiny little bit of housekeeping may finally be accomplished.

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