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Kevin Drennan. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Drennan: ‘No one should be above the law — especially elected lawmakers’

By Kevin Drennan, December 03 2021 3:54 pm

OPINION

Well, what a week we had in Trenton. I have been here for more than 20 years, and Thursday was the first time I saw legislators decide to be truly uncivil. First, let’s think about civility. Civility is formal politeness in behavior and speech. As we tie that to the United States Constitution and the First Amendment, we know that in America we want and even encourage the full expression of beliefs and opinions. We allow citizens to exercise their rights in speaking out about the actions of government and public officials to let decision-makers know when they disagree with them. They are free to do that passionately and forcefully. For example, a member of the Senate on Thursday decided to express opposition to the vaccination rules in the Statehouse by calling them “horseshit.” That was perfectly acceptable. The ability to verbally challenge a law or a rule without repercussion is what the First Amendment is about.

On the other hand, there is clear defiance in behavior that is truly uncivil. We know that in American history positive changes have at times occurred when people participated in civil disobedience. However, the ability to bring about positive change was always more effective if those actions were civil and respectful. Unfortunately, what occurred this week down the hallway in the Statehouse was neither civil nor respectful. A small group of legislators decided that they were above the law, and acted in a way that was unruly, disruptive and disrespectful to the principles of free speech. They knew that, as legislators, an important article in the New Jersey Constitution protected them from being arrested, so they decided to exploit that unique protection to engage in disobedient behavior that was blatantly uncivil.

No one should be above the law – especially elected lawmakers. That provision of the Constitution is very important, but it is not intended for members to use to defy the State’s laws in a way that no other citizen can. It is meant to protect those serving in the legislative branch of government from being arrested by officers who are part of the executive branch for no valid reason. Furthermore, the presiding officers of the Senate and Assembly have full authority to enforce rules in their respective chambers. Those rules — intended to preserve the integrity of the legislative process, the rights of all members, and the health and safety of the general public –are only truly effective if the legislators behave in a civil manner. What we saw yesterday was defiance of civility. I love working in Trenton, especially because of its civility. If elected officials choose to lead by being uncivil, if they choose to show society that laws don’t need to be followed, then these members of the Legislature are choosing anarchy over government, and we should all be worried.

Kevin Drennan serves as Executive Director of the Senate Majority Office and chairs the State Capitol Joint Management Commission

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