Lobbyists play major role as Marsy’s Law makes way through State House

Closed-door meetings and phone calls with lawmakers. An influx of letters to newspaper editors. A sea of purple signs and T-shirts bearing the letter “M” just beyond the State House steps. A sophisticated social media campaign highlighting crime victims’ stories.

Since New Hampshire was introduced to Marsy’s Law, also known as CACR 22, at a large-scale press conference two months ago, teams of lobbyists, public relations professionals and lawyers have been hired to advocate for a proposal to incorporate crime victims’ rights into New Hampshire’s Constitution. The effort now goes to the House with a head of steam after it passed its first big test in the state Senate, winning approval in a 20-3 vote.

Behind the debate, money has been flowing into New Hampshire to fund the carefully crafted campaign aimed at swaying the vote in favor of the new law. Identical efforts are underway in legislatures across the country – all funded by a California billionaire and set in motion through a nondescript California law office.

Since its introduction here, the number of people getting paid to pass Marsy’s Law has grown. Meanwhile, the opposition has hired its own lobbyists to try to keep pace.

Most New Hampshire lawmakers appear to support the amendment, but members of both parties have bristled at the outside money being spent to pass legislation in a state that already has a detailed Victim Bill of Rights on the books.

Funded by billionaire Henry Nicholas, the Marsy’s Law effort is named after Marsalee “Marsy” Nicholas, who was murdered by an ex-boyfriend in 1983. After his sister’s death, Nicholas set out to ensure equal rights for crime victims across the United States, beginning in his home state. He has since poured millions of dollars into his effort to get similar legislation passed in the 15 states that don’t provide constitutional rights for crime victims, including New Hampshire.

Getting Marsy’s Law passed in all of those states requires organization and a coordinated pattern of success. Efforts are currently under way in Kentucky, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Idaho, Oklahoma, Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Iowa.

In each state, political committees and limited liability companies are established. Those satellite organizations often have the address of a California law office in common – 15 Enterprise, Suite 550, in Aliso Viejo.

Marsy’s Law for New Hampshire lists California attorney Emilio Gonzalez as the chairman of its campaign. Gonzalez, who works out of the Aliso Viejo law office, is also identified as the chairman in other states, but he is not active in any state efforts, said Marsy’s Law for All National Communications advisor Henry Goodwin.

Once the state chapter is established and money can flow into a state, a state director and treasurer are hired.

The heart of New Hampshire’s organization is Amanda Grady Sexton, the director of public affairs for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

“CACR 22 will provide a meaningful voice for victims in the criminal justice system, and the Marsy’s Law organization has provided victims with the megaphone they need to help legislators and the public understand why this is so critical,” she said.

Marsy’s Law for New Hampshire

The original constitutional amendment introduced at January’s press conference now appears in a slightly modified form after senators approved two amendments Thursday. New Hampshire’s version of Marsy’s Law no longer directs the courts to enforce victims’ rights “in a manner no less vigorous than the rights afforded to the accused.”

Even with that phrase gone, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire said several sticking points remain.

Other states that have passed Marsy’s Law have adjusted the language slightly. But the ultimate effect is the same – giving victims of crime equal rights to the accused in the state constitution.

Since Marsy’s Law for New Hampshire registered as a political action committee on Jan. 23, it has hired 12 lobbyists, including attorneys from Sheehan Phinney law firm and Dennehy & Bouley lobbying firm where Concord Mayor Jim Bouley is a partner. The campaign has also hired Richard Killion of Elevare Communications and attorney Charles Douglas of Douglas, Leonard & Garvey, P.C., who are not directly lobbying for Mary’s Law but providing the campaign with public affairs and legal support.

While Grady Sexton is the paid state director of Marsy’s Law for New Hampshire, she is not listed as one of the campaign’s 12 lobbyists. Rather, she remains a registered lobbyist for the Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

“I’ve been a lobbyist for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence since 2001 and this is a major bill for the coalition,” Grady Sexton said, noting that her lobbying work is being paid for through the coalition’s fundraising efforts.

That same money is also paying for lobbying done by the coalition’s executive director Lynn Schollett and public policy specialist Jessica Eskeland.

Exactly how much Marsy’s Law is spending in New Hampshire will not be made public until June, when independent expenditure reports are filed with the Secretary of State’s Office.

All lobbyists are required to file their financial reports with the office in late April.

The ACLU, which is leading the opposition campaign, has hired former State Sen. Robert Clegg Jr., specifically to lobby against Marsy’s Law. The ACLU has four other lobbyists as well as staff members – policy director Jeanne Hruska, executive director Devon Chaffee and legal director Gilles Bissonnette – who are lobbying on behalf of several causes.

University of New Hampshire professor Buzz Scherr and retired Supreme Court Justice Carol Ann Conboy have also joined the fray, but not as paid lobbyists. Scherr is former chairman of the ACLU’s national board of directors and past president of the New Hampshire chapter.

Hruska said in an interview that the ACLU’s decision to hire lobbyists was two-fold.

“I think it’s in response to our serious concerns with the language – that the weight of the constitutional amendment means that these problems are much more serious,” she said. “It’s also in response to the firepower on the other side. We know they have lobbying firms and a ton of money. There is no way we’re ever going to compete with that, but it’s helpful to have another voice in the State House explaining our legal concerns to legislators.”

Outside money

The idea that a California-rooted campaign has made its way to the Granite State isn’t sitting well with opponents. Clegg, who is lobbying on behalf of the ACLU, has heavily criticized the effort on social media, recently posting “Conservatives in N.H. believe in laws. We don’t open the constitution for every liberal who has money and wants to buy a state.”

Grady Sexton defended the out-of-state money, saying the coalition asked for Nicholas’s support knowing it did not have the resources to accomplish a long-held goal. She noted that the coalition began discussing the idea of a constitutional amendment for crime victims as far back as the 1990s, but only in the past year has that dream materialized.

“Without this partnership with Marsy’s Law, we would continue to cross the number one priority off of our legislative wish list due to lack of resources,” she said, noting that the coalition – unlike the ACLU, Planned Parenthood or the Sierra Club – has no parent organization to look to for financial support. “Marsy’s Law is the only private organization of its kind that is funding the effort to help states bring enforceable rights to victims of crime.”

The Marsy’s Law amendment now heads to the House, where it needs three-fifths approval. If it passes the Legislature, two-thirds of voters will need to approve the amendment for it to become part of the New Hampshire Constitution.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, adandrea@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)
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