HONOLULU - A public hearing in the Hawaii House resumed Friday with lawmakers bickering over an unclear schedule and how best to allow more than 4,000 people to testify during a special session called to consider a bill that would legalize gay marriage.
The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee took a strict stance as a joint committee hearing resumed Friday morning, saying people absent when called would not get to testify about the bill, which passed the Senate earlier in the week. But Rep. Karl Rhoads reversed course after complaints from lawmakers on the panel, shouting from audience members and a brief recess to reconsider the issue.
"I'd like to finish this hearing sometime this century," Rhoads told a packed audience in a 200-seat auditorium in the Hawaii Capitol.
As the panel recessed, Rep. Marcus Oshiro stood up in the back of the room to loudly complain that the public hadn't been properly notified about the meeting, which began Thursday morning and took recess after midnight Friday. The Democrat, who has reservations about the bill but isn't part of either the judiciary or finance committees hosting the hearing, told reporters that lawmakers were violating the spirit of the process by making it more difficult for people to testify.
"The confidence of the general public was shaken," Oshiro said.
When the meeting resumed, Rhoads said everyone would get to speak in order of registration numbers given when they signed up. Rhoads said people who miss their number being called will be allowed to testify only after all 5,181 registered witnesses have been called. Exactly 1,000 numbers were called during the first portion of the hearing Thursday, which ran for more than 14 hours.
The House judiciary and finance committees are considering a bill passed by the state Senate to legalize gay marriage, which already is allowed in 14 other states and the District of Columbia. The legislation is the centerpiece of a special session called by Gov. Neil Abercrombie with a goal of allowing same-sex couples married in Hawaii to receive federal benefits as granted by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this year.
The length of the committee hearing has implications for the rest of the special session. The director of the Hawaii Health Department has asked for two weeks to implement legislation before ceremonies begin, while the bill itself states that ceremonies could begin Nov. 18.
Rep. Bob McDermott, a Republican opposed to the bill, said lawmakers owe it to the public to listen to testimony, noting that it has overwhelmingly opposed the special session and legalizing gay marriage.
"It's a dog-and-pony show, and they don't want to hear what the public has to say," McDermott said of the lawmakers organizing the hearing.
With two minutes allotted for each speaker, the rest of public testimony could take 139 hours - nearly six days if the hearing were to run continuously.
Lawmakers spent part of the hearing questioning Steve Levinson, a retired Hawaii Supreme Court justice who wrote a 1993 opinion saying that not allowing marriage violates discrimination laws in the Hawaii Constitution.
Levinson, who supports the bill, was asked about everything from that opinion to hypothetical challenges should lawmakers pass the bill.
"I would bet my house that if there were a legal challenge to the sufficiency afforded clergy that that challenge would fail," Levinson said when asked about a religious exemption clause that would prevent ministers from having to solemnize gay weddings.
The hearing also had lighthearted moments, including three sisters from Molokai who flew in to testify, then used most of their time to sing lawmakers religious songs, accompanied by an ukulele.
"We just came to tell you that we love you," sang Ruth Manu, Juanna Piialii and Judy Caparida.
After the songs, Rep. Sharon Har hugged the women and told them: "That was exactly what we needed."
"Democracy is taking place in the basement," said Abercrombie, who said he doesn't believe people are trying to prolong or delay the hearing.
He said if the hearing takes a long time, it means a lot of people want to participate in the process.
"I'm impressed with the sincerity and conviction of all the testimony," he said.