Gov. Linda Lingle invested weeks in an admirable effort to give due diligence to House Bill 444, which would have legalized civil unions in Hawaii — but ultimately came to the deeply disappointing decision to veto the bill, pointing instead to the need for resolution by a popular vote.
In what was by far her most consequential verdict on any legislation put before her, Lingle said the question of a legal status for unmarried couples is too emotional to be left to anyone but the electorate at large.
But the question of same-sex marriage was put to the voters in a 1998 amendment to the state Constitution, and in that measure the voters decided to empower the Legislature to define marriage as a state between one man and one woman.
The Legislature had done so. But the amendment never precluded lawmakers from their action this year: creating the state of civil unions to provide state protections and benefits to couples, heterosexual or homosexual, who are barred by state and federal law from marriage.
Lingle said during yesterday’s press conference that a civil union as defined in HB 444 "is essentially marriage by another name," overlooking the differences: Only marriage is universally recognized and conveys federal benefits as well.
The governor highlighted the "flawed process" the state House followed on the session’s final day. And although lawmakers deserve criticism for giving the appearance of haste and trickery in the unanticipated final vote, the bill had undergone the full complement of hearings. The 11th-hour vote was mostly a cosmetic flaw, not grounds to doom the measure.
The most distressing part of her reasoning is not her concern with missteps by lawmakers but her assumption that representative government can’t decide on this issue. Lingle recounted the emotional presentations made on both sides of the debate. "I am vetoing this bill because I have become convinced that it is of such societal importance that it needs to be decided by all the people of Hawaii," she said.
This is a weak rationalization. Decisions dealing with the civil rights of a minority population — and HB 444 in its essence attempts to equalize the civil rights of all couples — are unsuited to be put to a popular vote. Civil rights decisions of the past, including the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, would not have won passage had they been left up to the electorate. Preventing the tyranny of the majority is precisely the province of representative government.
Yesterday’s veto proves that civil unions must remain a central issue in the upcoming gubernatorial debates. Lawmakers need to champion another bill — and hope Lingle’s successor will agree that everyone deserves equal access to protections that the state offers its citizens.