House Judiciary Committee Update

Despite the challenges inherent in remote legislating, the House Judiciary Committee on which I serve continues its work protecting public safety. One of the first bills passed out of the Vermont House of Representatives this year was H.18, which would tighten Vermont laws regarding sexual exploitation of children. More children will be protected and more predators held accountable once H.18, which criminalizes simulated sexual acts involving real children, becomes law.

The Committee is currently considering H.133, a bill that would clarify a court’s ability to provide appropriate protection to victims of domestic abuse. Emergency relief from abuse (RFA) orders have long been an inexpensive and uncomplicated judicial avenue for victims of abuse to seek immediate safety.  This legal pathway is essential. The Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence testified that victims of domestic violence are at their highest risk of being killed when they are leaving an abusive situation, which is when they often seek an emergency RFA. H.133 would codify current court practice and clarify the ways in which the court can protect those who are seeking safety.  

To grant an emergency RFA, a judge must find that a victim has proved that abuse has occurred and that there is an immediate danger of further abuse. If these requirements are met, a judge will issue an order that outlines certain conditions the defendant abuser must meet. A judge may rely on the court’s inherent authority to protect a victim of domestic violence as a basis for ordering a defendant to relinquish firearms as part of this order. H.133 creates a statutory basis for this authority, giving it a firmer foundation than the court’s inherent authority and making that authority clear to all parties.

There is a clear and undeniable link between fatal domestic violence encounters and access to firearms.  Over half of all homicides in Vermont are domestic violence-related. 55% of domestic violence-related homicides in Vermont are committed with firearms and 77% of domestic violence-related suicides (murder-suicides) in Vermont are committed with firearms. Women are five times more likely to be murdered by an abusive partner when the abuser has access to a gun. The two leading risk factors for domestic violence homicide are the presence of firearms in a violent home and a person leaving the relationship.

The connection between firearms and domestic violence has been recognized by leaders across the state, and multi-disciplinary efforts are underway to explore how to address this deadly relationship. Leaders within law enforcement are advocating for legislative support to enhance safety for those who live with intimate violence. H.133 is an effort to meet this request and has strong support from Vermont law enforcement and the Department of Public Safety.

The Committee is also working on H.128, which would prohibit a defendant in a criminal proceeding from invoking the victim’s actual or perceived gender identity to justify their actions. While many of us prefer to envision our society as moving steadily forward in terms of acceptance and compassion, the sad truth is that 2020 was the most deadly year ever for transgender and gender-nonconforming Americans. All too often when a transgender person is physically assaulted, the realization of their transgender identity is used by the attacker as a defense in court or to lessen any penalty imposed by the court. H.128 would deny such a defense in these situations.

As the session progresses, the Judiciary Committee will continue to work on bills that help protect the safety of all Vermonters.