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Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, presents House File 13, her bill to add gender equality protections to the Minnesota Constitution, on the House floor. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)
Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, presents House File 13, her bill to add gender equality protections to the Minnesota Constitution, on the House floor. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

In the Hopper: Equal rights; veterans’ stays of adjudication

Equal rights: In a historic 72-55 vote March 7, the Minnesota House approved an Equal Rights Amendment to the Minnesota Constitution that would bar gender discrimination.

House File 13, from Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, would put the question to voters in 2020. The bill cleared the House despite running into a buzz-saw of GOP dissent.

Republicans made several attempts to amend the bill, several focusing on removal of the word “gender” from this ballot question: “Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to provide that equality under the law must not be abridged or denied on account of gender?”

Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, wanted to change the word to “sex” to focus the bill on women’s rights. Kunesh-Podein discouraged its adoption, saying “gender” encompasses protections for everyone, regardless of gender identity. Scott’s amendment failed 57-72.

An amendment from Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, would have changed the term to “biological sex,” which he called “an objective fact.” Words like “inclusive” and “gender” are based on feelings, not facts, he said.

“You’re creating a relativistic scenario that you cannot pin people down on,” he said. His amendment failed 52-75.

Another amendment from Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, would have inserted language rendering the amendment neutral on the question of abortion. She cited a Pennsylvania lawsuit filed earlier that challenges a state ban on public abortion funding as a violation of that state’s ERA. After her amendment failed 60-69, O’Neill wept.

Another common complaint was that, if passed, the bill would guarantee biological boys’ right to compete against girls in sports. To Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, it would be “the end of girls and women’s sports as we know it.”

“There are some people here who think that this would be one step for equal rights,” she said. “In reality, it is a giant step backward for the equal rights of women and girls.”

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, accused Democrats of foisting a constitutional amendment on the public without understanding their own legislation. He asked a series of women DFLers if they could define various gender classifications that he pulled off the internet.

“Do you know what a festishist is,” he asked Rep. Kristin Bahner, DFL-Maple Grove.

She didn’t. “However,” she said, “I can tell you that one does not need to know what gender someone is in order to vote to include equality in the state of Minnesota’s constitution.”

Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, perhaps crystallized the DFL side of the debate when she noted that wage inequities between men and women are as lopsided as they were 50 years ago. She blamed that, in part, on the U.S. Constitution, which enshrines the concept that “all men are created equal.”

“I think that’s a mistake,” Moran said. “There’s some man wrote into our Constitution that it was men who are created equal. I think what we’re doing is we’re correcting it to say that all people are created equal.”

After the final vote, Kunesh-Podein drank in the moment. “I’m just shaking from the raw emotion of it,” she said in an interview. “It’s a true affirmation.”

But she was also aware, she said, that chances are dim that Senate Republicans will take up the bill this year. Still, she has no intention of giving up.

“We’ll just keep coming back,” she said. “I’m not going anywhere. There are a lot of people who are not going anywhere. We’ll just keep working at it until we get it done.”

 

Marko Milosovic listens to a lawmaker during a March 7 House Judiciary committee hearing. The 12-tour combat veteran testified for House File 988. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Marko Milosovic listens to a lawmaker during a March 7 House Judiciary committee hearing. The 12-tour combat veteran testified for House File 988. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Vets’ stays of adjudication: A bill that would steer qualifying veterans toward stays of adjudication and dismissal of their criminal charges ran into some snags in recent days.

A vote on House File 998 was delayed through two meetings of the House Judiciary and Civil Law committee since March 7.

During the first hearing, an amendment was submitted too late for the committee’s immediate consideration. It was then reheard on March 11, where the committee’s chair, Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, held it back again out of concerns that bill author Rob Ecklund, R-International Fall, hadn’t provided a detailed accounting of its costs.

However, Lesch promised to bring the bill back—which he would have to do before the first committee deadline on March 15. If it makes it past Judiciary, its next stop would be Ways and Means.

At root, the Veterans Restorative Justice Act allows returning soldiers to earn their way out of criminal convictions—including misdemeanors, gross misdemeanors and many felonies—through stays of adjudication. High-severity and registered offenders would not be eligible.

The bill would make stays of adjudication the statewide presumptive sentence for participating veterans. But they would first have to convince the court that their crimes connect directly to addiction, post-traumatic stress or other complications of military service.

If that happens, the vet would have to complete 18-month process of rigorous treatment and abide by court-imposed conditions. In the end, the charges would be dismissed.

The bill standardizes a uniform process in all 87 of Minnesota counties, whether or not they host a veteran’s court, proponents said.

Marko Milosevic, who testified for the bill, served 12 combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. “Our job was to kill or capture high-value targets,” he told lawmakers. “It was very intense.”

Upon his return home, he said he felt disillusioned and “less a part of this world.” He began drinking heavily and ultimately got into trouble after a domestic violence incident involving his wife. He entered a domestic abuse specialty court in Beltrami County—creating a model case for Ecklund’s bill.

Milosovic completed the court-ordered program and repaired his relationship with his family. Since then, he said, he has nearly completed a college communications degree and is contemplating law school.

The program worked well for him, Milosovic said in an interview, but as things stand many other veterans don’t get the same chance.

“The issue is we have all these different veterans’ courts around the state, but there’s no real standard for what crimes, what stories or what happens,” he said. “So what this legislation does is standardize all that, across the board, for every county.”

The bill was amended Monday to give judges authority to sentence veterans through regular court procedures if they fail after having already received a stay of adjudication. However, Ecklund said, judges would not be required to go outside the veteran’s court process in those cases.

Brock Hunter, whose Veterans Defense Project spearheaded efforts to draft the legislation, said Milosovic is typical of modern American soldiers who endure multiple deployments. Many end up in trouble with the law as a direct result, he said.

“This approach works because it recognizes the service and sacrifice of our veterans on behalf of their communities,” Hunter said.

Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, expressed some concerns—though she said she likes the bill’s general approach to dealing with combat trauma. But she is uncertain it would be fair to offer special dispensations not available to all defendants.

“It does raise a concern for me whether there might be an equal protection argument from somebody else who doesn’t get this benefit,” she said.

Rep. Jack Considine, DFL-Mankato, had no such reservations. “It’s a national disgrace that we spend so much money getting soldiers ready to become lethal and the spend so little time and resources in helping them transition back into the community,” he said. The public owes it to veterans to help recover from their trauma, he said.

Pete Orput, the Washington County attorney is a big backer of veteran’s courts. He came away from the March 7 hearing feeling optimistic about the bill’s chances.

“I thought that was very positive,” he said. “I heard some individual comments from legislators that gave me great hope.”

The bill had not been rescheduled for its final Judiciary stop at the time of this writing. Its companion, Senate File 1153, has cleared the Senate Veterans and Military Affairs committee and is awaiting a hearing in Judiciary.

 

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