HELENA — Advocates for civil rights, human rights and abortion rights say they aren't getting a fair shake from House Judiciary Chairman Ken Peterson, R-Billings, at public hearings.
They are critical of Peterson's fairness in scheduling and running hearings, his limiting the ability of people to testify or at least state their names and his failing to stop representatives or witnesses from making inflammatory comments such as calling abortion providers murderers and homosexuality an abomination.
For his part, Peterson, serving his fourth term in the House, defended how he runs the committee and dismissed the criticisms.
"I would say they're absolutely wrong," he said. "I try to be fair to everybody. That's my goal. I'm an attorney. I know it's very important that all parties be treated the same."
Stacey Anderson, representing Planned Parenthood of Montana, said she's been at the Legislature on and off for seven sessions. She acknowledged that the House Judiciary Committee is challenging because of the nature of the bills and the passions on both sides. It typically hears many bills with major consequences on topics such as abortion, gay rights, guns, the death penalty and other constitutional issues.
"But this is one of the first sessions where the biases and disrespect is pervasive by the chair," Anderson said. "The limiting of testimony, the limiting of hearings on bills that decide our constitutional rights in my opinion is unconscionable to Montana."
Advocacy groups can't even invite Montanans to travel to Helena to testify at hearings when each side is limited to 10 minutes.
"The chair is shutting down public comment, he's shutting down hearings on bills that are life-and-death situations for Montanans," Anderson said. "I think the civility has degraded, and I think some of the questions to people are degrading."
Her views were echoed by Niki Zupanic of the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, and Jamee Greer of the Montana Human Rights Network. Some of them have registered complaints with House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, and encouraged their members to do so.
None of them had major complaints about Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Terry Murphy, R-Cardwell.
Milburn discussed the larger issue of all House hearings before the pressing transmittal deadline, saying: "I have told my committee chairs here to be fair. This time of year, the hearings are going to be short, or very short. It's just a common problem with the way our system is built."
On an anti-abortion bill to define a person, Peterson allotted 40 minutes to each side at the hearing on Feb. 14. Supporters were able to testify for at least 75 minutes, Zupanic said, while she and other opponents were given 30 minutes.
In response, Peterson said, "All the opponents testified. Yes, the proponents did have more time. It was kind of a miscalculation, but all the opponents got a chance to speak."
Zupanic said Peterson also had a different standard on the scope to which people could speak — a more lenient one for supporters and a more stringent one for opponents.
"None of the proponents that I can recall were admonished for straying from the text of the bill or from speaking to other issues," Zupanic said. "When opponents came to speak, I was the first one, and I started to speak about the effect of removing constitutional protection for the right to privacy and how it would result in women being investigated for miscarriages or pregnancy, women being forced to undergo medical treatment. The chair gaveled me down and said that I was off the bill."
However, Peterson noted and Zupanic mentioned separately that she had sought him out after Friday's hearings and told him that the time limits were more fairly applied than Monday. However, Zupanic remains critical of such limited hearing time.
"The bigger question that needs to be answered is why we have a system in place that doesn't provide for adequate time for meaningful public input?" she said.
Whenever he testifies before House Judiciary Committee, Greer said Peterson usually interrupts him and rules that he's not talking on the bill.
"I'm paid to be here," Greer said. "While I may get beat down, I'm still here every day and I know I'm here every day up till the end of the session. What worries me is that we had more than 57 people here (Friday), and all of those people were sitting in that room watching me get shot down, get gaveled down. That's sending a message."
Peterson defended himself, saying he often lets committee members and witnesses go "off the bill," citing an example from Friday where he let Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula, question a Hamilton minister.
One committee member, Rep. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, said she believes Peterson violated House rules by not allowing people to come to the podium and at least state their name and their positions on four bills. She said she couldn't recall this happening before but figured out a way around it by reading to the committee the names on the sign-in sheet and having people stand as she called their names.
"It only takes a few minutes for people to stand and say their name," Sands said. By not allowing people that courtesy, she said, "it shows disrespect to those people and to the legislative process."
Peterson said he doesn't think the criticisms are valid.
"I think they aren't sitting in my chair so they don't know to a large extent," he said.
When he has had to limit testimony, Peterson said he's imposed the same 10-minute time limit on both sides.
"Everybody, I don't care if you're opponents or proponents to whatever bill we handled, they each had 10 minutes. That translated into us finishing what we had to do that day, five minutes before the floor session."
Backing up Peterson was the panel's vice chairman, Rep. Krayton Kerns, R-Laurel, who said the chairman is doing a good job.
"I have no reason to think Ken isn't as fair as anybody," Kerns said. "And I wouldn't have done it any different if I was in the chair that day, either."
As for Peterson not stopping people from using the word murder to describe abortion, Kerns said, "it's impossible to catch and gavel down one word without the word getting out."
Kerns said he chaired the committee Thursday and allowed proponents and opponents on each bill 10 minutes apiece as the Feb. 24 transmittal deadline was quickly approaching.
"You should be able to make your point in 10 minutes," he said. "If you can't make your point in 10 minutes, you need to rethink your strategy."
But Anderson disagrees, saying Montanans are entitled to offer their lawmakers their opinions on bills.
"They didn't drive 60, 90, 200 miles to say their names, when it's about aid in dying or about amending the right of privacy or whether cops can confiscate illegal weapons," Anderson said. "These are big issues, and your name is inadequate if you're, in theory, trying to present both sides of the questions so these guys can make an informed vote. Ten minutes is not a hearing in my mind."