Making a return as majority leader is Sen. Dick Saslaw (Fairfax), who was last seen surviving a primary challenge from the left back in June. Also returning to leadership is Sen. Mamie Locke (Hampton) as Democratic caucus chair. One new face: Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) takes up the mantle of president pro tempore, the first woman and first African American to hold the post.
Locke’s choice is, perhaps, an interesting commentary on the Senate’s president and usual presiding officer, the scandal-plagued Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D).
No matter. Locke’s new post also means that somewhere, Harry Byrd’s ghost just turned purple with rage.
As interesting as all that may be, the real fireworks begin once the senators descend on Richmond.
The very clever use of the right’s phrasing (how can anyone oppose personal liberty?) masks a much larger political purpose. According to the amendment’s summary, it would add a section to the Virginia constitution:
… establish the individual right to personal reproductive autonomy. The amendment prohibits the denial or infringement upon this right unless justified by a compelling interest of the Commonwealth and achieved by the least restrictive means.
That’s an abortion rights amendment, with a vague assurance that some restrictions might be allowed (good luck enacting any of those).
The senator gets points for his boldness — unapologetically playing directly to the abortion rights backers in the Democratic base with his inventive bill title and his ability to show that elections have consequences.
And Saslaw gets extra credit for ensuring that gun control won’t monopolize all the molten hot takes in the 2020 legislative session. Few issues generate stronger feelings than abortion, and this proposed amendment will brings those feelings to the forefront.
But why let Saslaw have all the constitutional amendment fun? Newly minted majorities, even of the narrow 21-19 sort Democrats will have, are made for raising eyebrows and the opposition party’s blood pressure.
Marshall-Newman was approved with 57 percent of the vote in 2006, but it became a dead letter after the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision ruled such bans unconstitutional.
Ebbin and Del. Mark Sickles (D-Fairfax) already tried but failed to pry Marshall-Newman’s corpse out of the constitution. Others tried before them.
Maybe, with Democratic majorities on both sides of Capitol Square, they will finally have some success.
Even so, Marshall-Newman’s defenders won’t go quietly.
Consider the minutes from an October 2017 Code Commission meeting on legislation that would square state statues with the Obergefell decision:
Chris Freund with the Family Foundation stated that the foundation’s position is that marriage is between one man and one woman regardless of the Supreme Court decision. Jeff Caruso of the Virginia Catholic Conference stated that the conference’s position is that the provisions under review are dormant, not obsolete, and could change again under federal law; therefore, defining marriage as between one man and one woman is the correct policy for Virginia.
Republicans followed this fanciful logic to the bitter end, defeating legislation to scrub the state code as recently as this year’s legislative session.
Repealing Marshall-Newman will take time. But clearing the state code of its anti-same sex marriage artifacts? Roll up your sleeves, Democrats, and get scrubbing.