Power As A Test of Character: Georgia’s Campus Sexual Assault Bill

 In every political system we have abuses of power, some more than others.  They are not uncommon, and as long as the abuses are not egregious they can often times be overlooked.  That does not make it right, yet one must pick their battles.  It should also be said that the very legislators who commit these may do so because they sincerely have good intents.  Sadly though, the general public is not always aware that some bills begin under these circumstances, and a bill’s origins often offer a more comprehensive view of the legislation.  I would like to shed some light on one such case.

In 2016, the AJC reported on Representative Earl Ehrhart (R-36, Powder Springs) intervening in an investigation at Georgia Tech where he threatened and then followed through on reduced funding for the research institution the next legislative session after the outcome of the school’s investigation.  You see, despite thirty-eight years in the Georgia General Assembly and being a past Rules Chairman under Speaker Richardson, Ehrhart is only a sub-committee Chairman.  That subcommittee happens to be the House Appropriations sub-committee on Higher Education.

That’s right- Rep. Ehrhart holds the purse strings for all the colleges and universities across the state.  Those same universities that are churning out the talent in our state to put it on Forbes’ List of the next tech meccas.

Follow me now?

Now that was last session.  Representative Ehrhart, along with Representative Regina Quick, from Athens (yes, UGA is in her district), also introduced House Bill 51 in the 2016 session. It is rumored that while Georgia Tech did not particularly enjoy the lack of funding, they took it on the chin and thought the matter would die down.

Not so!

This session, sub-committee Chairman Ehrhart has used his Appropriations committee membership to have the bill heard through House Appropriations.  House Bill 51 neither deals with funding directly nor is the Appropriations Committee normally a place where a bill regarding IX investigations and campus sexual assault would land.  I guess the Speaker has to indulge every House member from time to time, so the bill sailed through Appropriations and passed on a party line vote on the House floor.  Those Republicans that voted yes can be found here.

Representatives Ehrhart and Quick assert that this legislation is an attempt to inject due process into a shady school internal policy.  That sounds really great.  They say that this is to prevent the egregious wrongful effects of those who have been wrongfully accused. That sounds even better!  The reality is that Georgia schools adopted a standard of best practices for internal dealings with campus sexual assault prior to this legislation.  They are also already federally mandated to report all sexual assault on campus without identifying information of the victims.  It should also be noted by National Review and Newsweek that wrongfully accused cases only make up a small margin 2%-10% of cases.  Here’s the specific analysis Newsweek cites.

IMHO, this legislation is a solution in search of a problem.

Thankfully, the Senate chose a more judicious approach.  2018 Gubernatorial candidate Lt. Governor Casey Cagle assigned it to Senate Judiciary, chaired by Senator Jesse Stone.  Chairman Stone, being an attorney, a moderate, and leadership’s previous stone wall (pardon the pun) to campus carry in 2014 offered a substitute to HB 51, essentially gutting the bill.

I had a lengthy and (hopefully) respectful discussion with Representative Quick about this legislation prior to the Senate Judiciary hearing.  Representative Quick was willing to meet with victims, with Agnes Scott College’s President (my alma mater) and with anyone who might have concerns with the bill.  To be clear, as a practicing family law attorney, she put a lot of work into the bill to improve it with special attention to strong boundaries between the authorities and schools.  She also tried to incorporate as much of the victim’s suggestions as she could without rendering the bill meaningless.   I have always admired Representative Quick’s approach to small government, her belief in personal choice and responsibility, and her willingness to discuss amiably and respectfully with the other side.  I believe we are both people who can agree to disagree with one another and yet still respect the other.

After Chairman Stone’s substitute was offered in the Senate Judiciary committee hearing, Representative Ehrhart and Representative Quick requested the bill be tabled so that they could further work on it.

Yet last night, low and behold, Sub-committee Chairman Ehrhart offered a substitute to Senate Bill 71, a bankruptcy bill that Chairman Stone has sponsored and had crossed over to the House.  Rep. Ehrhart thereby gutted Chairman Stone’s bill’s original language and replaced it with the House committee version of HB 51.

So after he was told ‘no’, Rep. Ehrhart pushed his bill through the process again. 

Someone *might* want to discuss optics of a rape bill with this gentleman, but I digress.

If you are sitting here wondering why you haven’t heard any outrage from colleges and universities across the state on this issue, wonder no more!  You see, Rep. Ehrhart knows the old rule that he who holds the purse makes the rules.  As it is, all schools across the state are sitting on pins and needles waiting for the whim of this otherwise legislatively impotent House member.

Now I find that disturbing, but what I find even more disturbing is the numerous wise, cool-headed legislators who have voted to pass this poor excuse for legislation rather than checking their own.  Particularly those in the Liberty Caucus, (a part of which Rep. Quick considers herself) who typically rail against things like this.  If this were to be done by a Democrat, the Republicans I know and love would run them out on a rail!  Yet when it is their own party they turn a blind eye.

To me, that leads me to question not just their policy, but their principles.

 

When did it become appropriate for Republicans to step aside when they saw abuses of power?

I have always valued more transparency and ethics reform in hopes it can shed light on monetary influence, conflicts of interest, and can map our relationships that may skirt the black and white confines of the law.  I often have taken these as part of the system over the years because it can be a waste of time and energy to fight them and there can be a backlash for me to speak.  I also hold the belief that I am in the business of making friends rather than enemies.

But if these are the types of friends women and schools in Georgia have, who needs enemies?

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