By Stephanie Grace | The Advocate
State Sen. JP Morrell is known for wearing sneakers around the State Capitol, a fashion statement that works just as well as a metaphor. If it seemed as if the New Orleans Democrat was always on the move during the legislative session that wrapped up last week, it’s because he was.
Morrell scored one of the session’s loudest and most surprising victories when his bill on whether Louisiana should join most other states in requiring jury convictions to be unanimous passed easily. A proposed constitutional amendment to reverse the existing provision, which drew support from both criminal justice reformers and strict constitutionalists, will be on the statewide ballot this fall.
Just passing that would be enough to deem a session a success, but it’s hardly the end of the story. Morrell authored 19 other bills that are destined for Gov. John Bel Edwards’ desk, a pretty good record for a progressive Democrat working in a majority Republican Legislature. They range from a much-discussed — and mocked — ban on bestiality, which had to survive silly slippery slope questions from the religious right, to a law clearly stating that a person cannot give sexual consent while in police custody, to a reshaping of the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board’s makeup following damaging revelations about the agency’s basic functionality last year.
While it didn’t get as much play as the unanimous jury measure, Morrell also steered a successful drive to adopt new domestic violence legislation. His bill creates a system to have sheriffs transfer guns from people already barred from possessing them due to a domestic violence protective order or conviction. To pass it, he had to counter resistance not just from the powerful gun lobby but from some sheriffs who didn’t want to take on the responsibility of storing the seized firearms. During the Senate debate, he temporarily silenced the chamber with his emotional plea.
“I am so tired of people telling me how inconvenient it is to look after domestic violence victims. I’m tired of it,” he said.
One way to pass more bills than the average lawmaker, of course, is to file more. On that front, Morrell is by far the Legislature’s most prolific author. He introduced 47 bills this year. State Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central, came in a distant second with 33, and lawmakers overall filed an average of just over 10.
Not all got hearings, and Morrell said in a recent interview that he never thought they would.
“I file a lot of bills because I have a lot of ideas,” he said.
Some are placeholders, like a measure to stop New Orleans’ controversial practice of booting cars after just one ticket, a cause that Morrell abandoned when the City Council moved to take it up.
Some are meant to force his colleagues to go on the record even if they have no realistic shot at passage this time around, a confrontational approach that not every politician emulates. This category includes measures pushing for pay equity for women.
And some are meant to start a conversation. At first, Morrell put the unanimous jury legislation in this category, only to see it take on a life of its own. Lots of players had a role in its success, including some outspoken conservatives. That affirmed Morrell’s ability to find common ground with those who come from a very different place. State Rep. Sherman Mack, an Albany Republican who chairs the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee, said a phone call from Morrell helped overcome his skepticism on the jury bill and turn him into an enthusiastic advocate.
By the way, Morrell also chairs a major committee, Senate Revenue & Fiscal Affairs, which had little to do in the regular session but will be front and center in the upcoming special session.
That’s one reason he was so active on other fronts during the regular session.
Another is that he’s approaching his last year in office; he jokingly described this year’s agenda as “everything JP’s tried to pass, ever.” A lot remains on his wish list and probably will for a long time.
Still, there’s a powerful lesson in what happened with the jury bill, one that his colleagues should take to heart: Once you start a conversation, who knows where it might end up?