Another View: A sad business

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Vermont State Senator Norm McAllister was charged last May with three serious felonies and three misdemeanors alleging criminally inappropriate sexual contact. One of the alleged victims was a young woman serving as his intern at the statehouse. A newspaper quotes him freely admitting he had a sexual relationship with her. Leadership immediately stripped him of his committee assignments and he did not return for the last days of the session. Despite repeated requests, he refuses to resign.

As the next session approaches, controversy has arisen over whether the Senate should expel him or wait out the conclusion of his criminal trial. Some claim the pending criminal trial would unfairly prevent any defense he could make in a Senate expulsion hearing. They point to the presumption of innocence, his right to remain silent, the right to due process with criminal rules of procedure and the State's burden of proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt. As a criminal defense attorney with more than three decades of trial work, I too cherish these principles in a court of law. Whether his actions constitute criminal behavior rightfully belongs within the purview of a jury to decide. But an expulsion resolution would be heard in the Senate. It is not a court of law. It is a body politic that functions under its own rules, in this case Mason's Rules, as it conducts the people's business in accordance with its constitutional responsibilities. When a Senator cannot perform his/her duties, when disruption prevents the body from normally conducting its business, or when a Senator insults the integrity of the institution, Senate Rules provide tools for solving the problem. One of those tools is expulsion, which falls exclusively within the purview of the Senate to decide. The alleged criminal facts against Senator McAllister are not relevant in a Senate expulsion hearing. The only relevant fact regarding his criminal case is that a lengthy and complicated legal proceeding (involving one or more jury trials) is now timed to coincide with the Senate session. This prevents his appearance in the Senate when preparing for and attending trial. Without committee assignments, his constituents, his party caucus and the committees he served on are deprived of his voice and his vote. Constituents with needs may be unlikely to approach him given these handicaps or the nature of the charges. The totality of these circumstances makes it virtually impossible for him to perform the duties of his office.

There is one final issue to address. Senator McAllister has publicly and freely admitted he was having sexual relations with his young intern, commencing when she was sixteen. This no longer requires jury determination. That fact alone, at least to me, constitutes a power imbalance that denigrates the integrity of the Senate. Even acquittal of the criminal charges does not erase this indiscretion. Every senator is honored by their constituents when given the privilege to serve, but that service comes with a responsibility to uphold the integrity of the institution. What message does his admitted behavior send? What message would be sent if the Senate was to fail to respond to that behavior, especially to those pages, staff, lobbyists and offended colleagues who must continue to work there?

Senator McAllister is indeed entitled to his day in criminal court, but the Senate also has a right to function normally and a responsibility to maintain its integrity. It is indeed a sad business to expel someone, but Senator McAllister's steadfast refusal to resign leaves no choice.

Joe Benning is state senator for the Caledonia-Orange District.


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