Monday, August 6, 2007

Vt Legislator to weigh in on gay marriage issue again

Article published Aug 5, 2007
Little called to weigh in on gay marriage issue again

BURLINGTON – Tom Little's second-floor law office on Burlington's picturesque St. Paul Street looks out on a park bustling with late Friday afternoon activity.

Just beyond that park is City Hall, where, depending on the recommendation of a new committee that Little is leading and the will of the Vermont Legislature, gay and lesbian couples could one day receive marriage licenses.

Little, a soft-spoken Republican from Shelburne who seven years ago shepherded the state's landmark civil unions bill through the Vermont House, said he is surprised to find himself tackling the issue of gay rights again.

"If someone told me in May of 2000 that I would be chairing a statewide commission on gay marriage, I wouldn't have believed them," he said. "But here we are."

To the surprise of many, including the state's political mavens, the Vermont Legislature's top two Democrats announced last month that a special commission would study the expansion of the state's civil unions law to gay marriage.

What was not surprising was the selection of Little as the chair of the 10-member commission. Colleagues from his days in the Vermont House remember Little as an impartial legislator who holds a deep respect for the political process that carries a proposal into state law.

His selection brings name recognition and legitimacy to the commission formed by House Speaker Gaye Symington of Jericho and Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin of Putney, current and former legislators said.

Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor, one of the two current state politicians on the committee, joined the Vermont Legislature the year following the civil unions bill, but he worked alongside Little for two terms before he left office.

Campbell said Little garnered a reputation as a scrupulous legislator, devoid of the ego that sometimes afflicts Montpelier politicians.

"You know, I never looked at Tom as a Republican," Campbell said. "I always saw him as a fellow legislator and someone whom I could learn a lot from. People from all the political parties have real respect for him."

'Born and raised'

Little, 53, was born and raised in Burlington, a city that he has watched grow and change over his lifetime. After that, as he puts it, he "went to public schools, traveled out-of-state for college, became a lawyer, married and settled in Shelburne."

He said he studied law almost by accident. Practically directionless near the end of his undergraduate career at Bowdoin College, Little said his father, George Little, suggested he take the law exam. He performed well on the LSAT, and his father suggested he go to law school. And so he went on to Cornell Law School.

"I never dreamed of becoming a lawyer," Little said. "But I had a good education and this field allows a certain flexibility in job options."

Little also didn't aspire to become a politician, though his parents surely influenced his decision to submit his name as Shelburne's state representative in the early 1990s when the previous House member suddenly stepped down.

His father was a two-term House member in the early 1970s who came back a decade later to serve in the Senate, and his mother served on the Burlington Planning Commission for many years. The son and father served together in the Legislature for one term before the elder Little stepped down from public service.

"My name was one of three forwarded for consideration to Gov. (Howard) Dean, who had just been in office for five months," Little said. "He appointed me to the position in January 1992."

Little's first assignment was with the House Fish & Wildlife Committee, which at the time was tackling issues far less controversial than the one that would define his political career.

"There were lots of hot topics the committee debated," Little said, with a slight smile. "The one I remember was if Vermonters should be allowed to hunt coyotes at night using a light."

The decision that

changed everything

The Vermont Supreme Court ruled on the Baker v. Vermont case, which stated that the ban on allowing same-sex couples to form a legal union was unconstitutional, on Dec. 20, 1999, just weeks before the Legislature was to return for the second half of its biennium.

And while there was a perception that the court had been delaying a decision for some time, the ruling was not exactly unexpected, Little said. During the summer prior to the decision, same-sex advocates had begun speaking to legislators about gay marriage and begun a quiet, non-confrontational public relations campaign across the state.

One of the legislators that the advocates met with was Little. Many in the gay and lesbian community were either expecting the court to call directly for gay marriage or turn down the issue, leading to a possible legislative path of incremental changes in same-sex rights.

But Little thought there would be a third option. And he turned out to be right.

"I told them that the court might rule there was a constitutional problem, but they would leave it up to the Legislature to decide," he said. "They thought I was crazy."

Once the decision came down, it practically wiped all the other legislative priorities off the table for the coming session. Legislative leaders and then-Gov. Howard Dean agreed that the controversial issue of same-sex rights would have to be examined early in 2000, just nine months before an election.

"Soon after, the House Judiciary Committee started working on our legislative response," Little said.

Little said he was fortunate to have a "good committee" tackling the issue with him. Most of the members had been there for several years, they understood the complex judicial issues and trust had been built among members, he explained.

"We knew each other," he said. "If this had happened one year earlier or one year later, the speaker of the House would have had to decide who the members of the Judiciary Committee were that would be writing the bill."

Beth Robinson, the chair of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Taskforce, which lobbied for gay marriage seven years ago, said Little's "influence was essential to the passage" of the civil unions bill.

Robinson applauded the former legislator's conduct during that time. Rather than coming in on the first day and staking a path for gay marriage or for civil unions, Little's committee took weeks of testimony on the issue as a broad subject, Robinson said.

This exposed committee members to a wealth of thought and opinions on same-sex rights. When Little polled representatives on the committee and it was clear that gay marriage didn't have the votes, the decision was the result of a fair and thoughtful process, she said.

"Tom is very mindful of the process and his committee received input from a wide range of people," Robinson said. "But he didn't take a straw vote until after about six weeks of discussion, after the committee had received lots of testimony."

The Judiciary Committee looked at all the information that was available at the time. Members learned about the history of marriage in Vermont and the United States and previous attempts to extend matrimonial rights to same-sex couples in Hawaii and Alaska.

The committee also held two hearings in the House chamber on the issue, events that drew record numbers to the Statehouse and revealed Vermonters' deeply divided views on rights for same-sex couples.

"When I ran for the Legislature and when I was appointed as chair of the Judiciary Committee, I never thought I would take an interest in gay and lesbian rights," Little said. "At the time, we didn't even really know how to talk about gay marriage in an adult, respectful and responsible way."

Domestic partnerships

or gay marriage?

Little's first straw poll of committee members came out 8-3 in support of legal unions for same-sex couples, which at the time legislators were calling "domestic partnership." That sentiment echoed the opinion of the legislative leaders, the governor and Little himself.

Gay marriage did not have the support of legislators at the time, Little said. Later, an amendment that would have instituted gay marriage garnered only about 30-35 votes in the Vermont House, reaffirming the committee's direction.

"I knew we had to put forward something that had the support of a lot of legislators," he said. "I wanted us to be successful in this effort."

Marriage is mentioned countless times in Vermont's statutes and laws, and the committee was confronted with the possibility of having to comb through all 34 sections and add "or civil unions" following each mention.

Little devised an easier option: A new law ensuring that whenever a state statute mentioned marriage, it would also apply to the new civil unions. When the final bill came up for a committee vote, only one member voted against it. And that was because the legislator wanted gay marriage, not civil unions.

When the issue reached the House floor for a vote of the whole body, Republican leaders did not push too hard against it, Little said. Walter Freed, the House Republican leader at the time, told other members of the party that the debate over same-sex rights would not be a caucus issue, Little said.

"When something is a caucus issue, the leadership pushes the party to vote together on it," Little said. "But this meant that members could vote their conscience."

Focus on the family

The gay marriage commission – its official name is the Vermont Commission on Family Recognition and Protection – is scheduled to meet for the first time at the Statehouse on Aug. 23.

Little has worked alongside several of the commissioners. But others he will be meeting for the first time that day. The body is expected to issue a report on the subject in April 2008, one month before the Legislature typically wraps up for the year.

That timeline could push the gay marriage issue into the 2008 campaign. And if the commission recommends expanding state law to permit gay marriage, it would become a 2009 legislative priority.

But Little said he doesn't think state politicians will move as quickly on it as they did when there was a court mandate. He thinks House and Senate leaders will wait until the legislative stars align, and there is clear support for the change in both chambers and in the governor's office.

Gov. James Douglas, who came into office two years after the civil unions decision, has come out against gay marriage, but he has not yet said if he would veto such a measure if it came across his desk.

"Vermonters, I think, really need some time to think about this issue," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if it takes another 10 to 12 years for the Legislature to be successful."

He does, however, think the debate this time around will be less contentious.

When the formation of the committee was announced at a Burlington press conference outside City Hall, Little said the group's responsibility is to determine if there are any reasons that gays and lesbians shouldn't be allowed to marry.

The views of Vermonters have probably shifted, he said.

"I think many people who were hesitant about civil unions have seen that it really hasn't changed Vermont," Little said.

Even churches are shifting their position on same-sex rights and gender issues. Little is an Episcopalian and has been a delegate to the church's convention four times over the last 12 years.

During the 2003 general convention, members of the church were split over the confirmation of Gene Robinson, who is openly gay, as the bishop of the diocese of New Hampshire. He supported Robinson during that contentious convention.

"I have a lot of stories from that convention," said Little, shaking his head.

Back to work

Little hadn't originally planned to run for re-election in 2000 after writing the civil union bill. He had decided a year earlier to call it quits and focus on his family and law practice.

"But I couldn't step down then," he said. "That would have looked too much like I didn't think I would win."

Like many moderate Republicans who supported civil unions that year, Little faced a primary challenge from a more conservative Republican who was riding the wave of outrage over the decision that some Vermonters had.

But unlike some of his colleagues, Little won the primary election. He finished his final term and then, as promised, went back to his family and his law firm, Little & Cicchetti P.C.

His work on the House Judiciary Committee was tough, Little said, but he was glad to do it. And he's glad to be at the same kind of work again, for a short while.

"Some people don't realize how difficult it can be being a legislator," he said. "For five months of the year you're focused on policy and politics and not your work and family. Afterward, you just have to sit back and take a look at what you've missed."

Contact Daniel Barlow at


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