For more than a decade I have closely followed the Utah State Legislature. In that time I have heard offensive comments about babies being black or comments wondering when rape is actually rape. I have heard stupid comments about how it is okay to shoot a cat if you think it is feral or that there is no problem drinking raw milk, even if it has green film on the surface. I have heard the twisting of words to push particular interests, backpedaling, doubling down, and grand naivete.
But never have I heard someone display as much disregard and disrespect for the legislative body and the legislative process as Representative LaVar Christensen (Republican – Draper) showed Friday while acting in his role as Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
The topic at hand was HB 234 – Adoptive and Foster Parents Amendments from Representative Angela Romero (Democrat – Salt Lake City).
The bill itself is straightforward: a reaction to the Obergefell v. Hodges decision by the Supreme Court last year. Now that same-sex marriage is the law of the land, Utah (along with many other states) has to change various aspects of state code in order to be in compliance with the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. Since Utah specifically constructed laws to say that marriage is only between a “man and a woman” and that only married couples have certain rights under the law (such as the adoption laws Romero is looking to change), Utah needs to update its code in order to not be in violation of the Supreme Court’s ruling.
But Christensen, a staunch opponent of all things homosexual, had a chip on his shoulder so large that it could be seen from his district in Draper despite the winter inversion.
There was no way Christensen couldn’t have come in ready to fight. His 2004 bill, HJR 25 – Joint Resolution On Marriage, would lead to the Utah Constitutional ban on same-sex marriage – a ban that was the cause of the Kitchen v. Herbert ruling against the state – a ruling against the state that was widely seen as a watershed moment nationally for same-sex marriage. Utah, yes Utah, was performing same-sex marriages in December of 2014. Six months later same-sex marriages would be the law of the land based on the rights granted to the Supreme Court in the Constitution.
Yes, in a twist of fate so ironic that not even the best Greek playwrights could have imagined it, same-sex marriage came about in no small part because of LaVar Christensen.
But we have seen huffing and puffing before. What makes Christensen’s actions so abhorrent to make me call for Christensen to be stripped of his chairmanship?
The reason Christensen should be condemned is because there is a clear and important distinction between the offensive, stupid, or “interesting” comments made by lawmakers noted above and the comments made by Christensen as Chair of one of the most powerful committees in Utah government.
During the hearing (full audio below), Christensen badgered department heads, shouted down his fellow representatives, and gave a clear preference to members of the audience who supported his viewpoint.
This is different than the above where each of the offensive, stupid, or “interesting” comment took place within the legislative framework – a framework of fairness that holds at its core the idea and ideal of representation. Every lawmaker, no matter how stupid the comment may be, is allowed (and should be allowed) to speak and be heard. Why? Because they are speaking as the voice of the people who elected them into office. Even the most offensive comments must be allowed in our representative democracy so that conversations can be had and the marketplace of ideas become richer. This idea can also be extended to department heads. As extensions of the Executive branch and presumed experts on particular topics.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the voice of the people deserve to receive equal representation – particularly during a committee hearing. This allows lawmakers to make a well thought out decision prior to voting and allows the public an opportunity to petition their government.
In all my years of listening to committee hearings I can not recall a time when a chair didn’t ask prior to public comment who was for or against a bill so that both sides can clearly be heard. On Friday, Christensen not only failed to do this, but also stacked the comments: one for the bill, three against – in that order.
There is no excuse for this; even the most passive observer of the legislature knows where Gayle Ruzicka fell on the bill long before she stepped up to the microphone, yet she followed someone who was opposed to the bill. Furthermore, Ruzicka was followed by a third opponent who Christensen, either through incompetence or malice, did not bother to ask where the member of the public stood.
At each and every step, Christensen interfered with the legislative process and actively obstructed the voice of the people. He ruled motions out of order that were proper, he disregarded points of order, he prevented department heads from stating their facts, he showed clear bias towards his worldview, and he did it all with a venom that degrades the integrity of the legislative process.
This is conduct unbecoming of any lawmaker, let alone the chairman of a committee, let alone the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Anyone who respects and honors the legislative process – Republican or Democrat, Liberal or Conservative – should be appalled by Christensen’s actions. It shows a fundamental disrespect for the process, a fundamental disregard for the people, and a fundamental abuse of power.
If Christensen is unwilling to apologize for his actions and rectify the situation immediately, it is abundantly clear that he is unfit to serve in that capacity and should be removed from any form of leadership immediately.
Shame on you, LaVar Christensen.