Posted: Jan. 11, 2011
THE SECOND TUESDAY IN JANUARY
By Celia Cohen
The state House of Representatives did not begin the new legislative term by reading aloud the Delaware Constitution, the way the U.S. House of Representatives convened with a recitation of the federal Constitution.
Smart move. Because the legislative session nearly began by ignoring the state Constitution, or at least by interpreting it very loosely, perhaps very, very, very loosely.
The state Constitution says the General Assembly "shall convene on the second Tuesday of January of each calendar year."
Shall convene. There is no asterisk adding any wimpy wording, "unless snow is predicted."
Even so, there was a great deal of consultation Monday between the legislative and executive branches wondering if the first day of the session in Legislative Hall in Dover ought to be postponed because of the snowstorm coming this way.
"The Constitution is based on common sense. Our forefathers expected us to use common sense, and they would not expect us to come down in a blizzard and risk our health and welfare," said Bob Gilligan, the Democratic speaker.
Clearly Gilligan comes down on the side of an organic reading of the Constitution, not an originalist one, where January is January and the North wind doth blow and we shall have snow.
In a sterner day, with a stricter interpretation of the Constitution, there would have been another response. If travel were treacherous, then the state police and National Guard would have been dispatched to get the lawmakers to Dover.
"Whatever resources are necessary to get people there are committed," said David Swayze, a lawyer and lobbyist who was counsel to Gov. Pete du Pont in the 1970s.
Sad to say, it was actually risk-free to consider delaying the session because there was no penalty for the legislators if they did. "It's simply one of those markers the Constitution imposes that doesn't carry any proscription," Swayze said.
Of course, the legislature did convene as scheduled, once the weather forecasters predicted the snow would begin late in the day.
It meant the representatives could take their oaths of office, promising they would "always uphold and defend" the state Constitution, without crossing their fingers.
The senators were already sworn. They took their oaths in December because of another one of those inconvenient clauses in the state Constitution.
A judge's term was due to expire, and the Constitution instructs the governor to bring the Senate in for a special session to vote for reappointment, or else the judge has got to go, so the senators had a jump on the new session. It was less pomp, more circumstance.
Although the House did not read the Constitution, there were other echoes from Capitol Hill.
Gilligan asked for a moment of silence for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the other casualties of the Arizona rampage, and he also referred to John Boehner, the Republican speaker.
Boehner is no Oh Susannah or Argentina. He will cry for anyone or anything. Gilligan is not that kind of a crier, but he was not faulting Boehner.
"If you're not emotional when you become speaker of the House, you shouldn't be speaker of the House," Gilligan said.
"I will work to be fair and to be worthy of the trust you have placed in me. I do not consider myself the Democratic speaker of the House, I consider myself the speaker of the House."
The legislators were finished for the day before the snow fell.
"I almost canceled because of the weather forecast. I'm glad I didn't," Gilligan said.
So what if it had snowed? If this was China, the legislators would have been marching to Dover and doing calculus in their heads. Well, maybe not the calculus part. They are legislators, after all.
It still would have been all right if they just sang their ABCs.