Tuesday, February 10, 2004

The seductive appeal of mob rule. There is no more seductive or pernicious argument in the gay-marriage debate than that "the people" should get to decide the fate of an amendment to the state constitution that would ban same-sex marriage.

Today's Boston Globe reports that a state rep has come under attack from something called the "Committee to Let the People Vote." On the op-ed page, a hateful little screed by Catholic activist William Hobbib concludes: "The final decision and its far-reaching implications should be decided by a democratic vote of the people of the state, with the appropriate level of study and public debate that a constitutional amendment vote would require."

Thus in the Hobbibsean view of the world, the legislature's role in amending the constitution should be limited to that of a debating society, with all power resting in the hands of the people.

State Senator Michael Morrissey put it this way in a Globe interview: "The question is, what's more democratic than putting a question on the ballot? Isn't that democratic?"

Well, of course, nothing could be more democratic than putting gay marriage to a vote. But we don't live in a pure democracy; we live in a republic, with constitutional rights for the minority counterbalancing the will of the majority. Among other things, that's why we don't see proposals on the ballot to bring back slavery.

The Massachusetts Constitution can be amended with stunning ease - far more than is the case with the US Constitution, which requires a two-thirds majority of both branches of Congress and three-fourths of the state legislatures. By contrast, an amendment here requires just a majority vote in two consecutive sessions of the legislature (or only one-fourth if the amendment is submitted by a petition of the voters), followed by a majority of voters on the state ballot.

The point is that the amendment process, though extremely easy, requires the involvement of the legislature. If, as Hobbib and Morrissey assert, the legislature's role is merely to wave the amendment through and let the voters decide, then they are arguing against any role at all. In the Hobbib-Morrissey model, the fact that the legislature has to vote twice is nothing more than impediment, an anachronism, something to be set aside for the greater good of pure democracy.

That has it exactly backwards. The legislature is there to protect the rights of the minority. The drafters of the state constitution - headed by John Adams - gave an explicit role to the legislature so that our elected officials could exercise their considered judgment as to whether a proposed amendment might do so much damage that it should not even be considered by the voters. Only after legislators have had a chance to reflect - twice - is an amendment to go before the public.

The amendment to ban gay marriage may be voted on as soon as tomorrow. Legislators owe us their wisdom, such as it may be, as well as the courage to act on that wisdom. Simply letting "the people" decide is an invitation to mob rule. It would send an ugly message that our elected officials see nothing wrong with oppression as long as it is "the people" who are doing the oppressing.

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