Rep. Eugene O'Flaherty

Representative Eugene O’Flaherty is House Chair of the Judiciary Committee. In that position he has the power to block any legal reform he doesn’t like. No matter how popular the reform, or how much public or legislative support it has, if he doesn’t like it, it doesn’t go through.

And there is a long list of popular reforms that he’s been able to block for years. Many eventually get through – but not before a lot of damage is done.

This year O’Flaherty is blocking:

  • CORI Reform (H3523),
  • Shared Parenting (H1400)
  • Alimony Reform (H1785)

Each of these bills have been introduced for the past several years. All of them have wide popular and legislative support. Many legislators have legitimate differences over over these bills – but they have never gotten an opportunity to debate them – because O’Flaherty has already decided – they aren’t coming out of committee. Whether you are for them or against them, I think all people of good will believe that these are the types of issues which should be debated before the entire legislature, and where legislators, as representatives of the people can vote their conscience.

But Rep. O’Flaherty doesn’t think so. And even though he represents only the city of Chelsea, he is happy to decide these issues for everyone. His answer is “no”.

He sees no need to debate these issues. There is no need to consult anyone else’s point of view.

This is not the first time O’Flaherty has blocked popular legislation for years – until a catastrophe happens, and someone’s life is permanently affected. Only then will O’Flaherty let the bill out of Judiciary.

Let’s review a little history.

Melanie’s Law

Melanie Powell

On July 25th, 2003 13-year-old Melanie Powell of Marshfield Massachusetts was walking home from a birthday party when she was killed by a drunk driver – Pamela Murphy. It wasn’t the first time Murphy had been drunk at the wheel. She had been convicted of drunk driving once before in 1993. It’s unknown how many times she must have put the public in danger and driven when she had too much to drink.

Melanie was just one of 156 people who were killed by drunk drivers in Massachusetts that year. In those days drunk drivers were usually charged with a misdemeanor. Only 15% of them got any jail time, and those that did rarely got more than 60 days. Most were back on the road the very next day.

Melanie’s story became a national issue. And states across the country began passing tougher laws against drunk driving – a law they called “Melanie’s Law”. And Massachusetts too tried to pass a tough anti-drunk driving law. But Massachusetts, who prides itself on being a progressive state, an example to other states, was one of the last to pass such a law.

Why? After all, Melanie was from Massachusetts. The public was overwhelmingly in favor of a tougher law. The great majority of legislators were in favor. But one man was against it – Eugene O’Flaherty.

O’Flaherty is a trial lawyer by trade, and often represented drunk drivers. He knew that one of the primary benefits of a good lawyer is their ability to negotiate better terms for the offender, helping them to avoid jail, or even keeping the crime off their record. Under Melanie’s Law, after a second offense, jail time is mandatory.

O’Flaherty was a passionate opponent of Melanie’s Law. He stopped it cold until 2005. And then in July of 2005, almost two years to the day, Lawrence Robertson was drunk and high on drugs when he ran a red light and plowed into Katelyn Melia’s SUV, overturning it. She was pregnant and the crash caused her to lose the pregnancy. It was the 4th time he had been convicted of drugging and driving. He should have been in jail – and he would have been – if only O’Flaherty had allowed Melanie’s law to pass. Today that baby, Jillian Hope Melia, would have been 5.

With renewed pressure, O’Flaherty had to let the bill out of committee, but not without first stripping it of most of its tough provisions. Of the 6 members of the Judiciary Committee voting to weaken the law, all six were democrats, and 5 were lawyers, including O’Flaherty who promptly packed his bags and went on vacation to Portugal.

Why would lawyers oppose Melanie’s Law? Simple, lawyers make fees off drunk drivers.

The public was outraged. O’Flaherty was forced to cut his vacation short and come back to help restore the law. But he wasn’t too happy about it. He was censured on the house floor for repeatedly dropping f-bombs and threatening other legislators with revenge while they put the tough provisions back in.

But every single day the law was held up by O’Flaherty, people on the streets of Massachusetts were in danger. In the 48 hours before the law was passed and signed by Governor Romney, two drunk drivers killed two more people in separate incidents.

And when he was roundly criticised by Brian McGrory in the Globe for his obstructionism that had cost so many lives O’Flaherty had this to say:

I rarely write responses to low-level journalists but you really tick me off to the point where I wish I had been in high school with you so we could have playfully wrestled after school and you could have gone home to Mommy with tears in your eyes along with a black eye and a sore arse like I’m sure you did on more than one occasion.

Making the people of Chelsea proud. Now that’s statesmanship for you.

Jessica’s Law

Jessica Lunsford

On February 24, 2005 a beautiful young girl, Jessica Lunsford was kidnapped out of her bed by 47-year-old John Couey. He raped and tortured her for three days and then buried her alive. The depravity of his crime shocked the nation, and quickly almost every state passed laws mandating minimum sentences for child rapists and murderers – a law known in most states as Jessica’s Law.

In Massachusetts legislators got right to work crafting our own version. But it despite the law being popular with voters and legislators it was blocked by one legislator – Eugene O’Flaherty.

O’Flaherty argued that Jessica’s law was just “chest thumping” and that it would do little to put child murdering psychopaths in jail. Why? because prosecutors would “have their hands tied when it comes to plea bargains and other arrangements.”

Get that? He opposed it because lawyers for child murderers would be unable to plea bargain. You see, the benefit of a good trial lawyer – what they earn money for – is plea bargaining down sentences. With mandatory minimum sentences child murderers always get the long sentences they so richly deserve. There is no plea bargain for them.

So O’Flaherty opposed it – to protect trial lawyers and their pecuniary interests. As Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly indicated:

O’Flaherty also has ties to elements within the trial lawyer community. Trial lawyers are among the most vociferous opponents of Jessica’s Law because it ties their hands in plea negotiations. Whatever the reason for O’Flaherty’s opposition, one thing is clear. He is single handedly subverting the will of the legislature of which he is a part of and the state he was elected to serve.

For three long years Massachusetts had to wait while O’Flaherty blocked the law. In the meantime dangerous criminals were able to plea bargain their sentences down and get out of jail early.

Corey Saunders

And the result? In 2001 Corey Saunders was convicted of indecent assault and battery of a young boy. With a plea bargain he served just four years. When time came for his early release prosecutors, police and two court appointed experts pleaded with a judge that Saunders was a danger to society and should not be released. But with his short sentence served the judge felt compelled to release him anyway.

On Jan 31, 2008, Corey Saunders entered a public library and raped a 6 year old boy in a public bathroom. His unknowing mother was just a few feet away.

The case made national news on the O’Reilly Factor, which had a combative ambush interview with O’Flaherty in front of his house. Here O’Flaherty again cites his opposition to the bill due to its effect on limiting lawyers ability to plea bargain on behalf of sexual predators.

O’Flaherty was not the only member of the fraternity of trial lawyers in opposition to Jessica’s Law. On the floor of the house, speaking against the bill, Rep. James Fagan gave a spectacular reputation destroying speech, where he explained how as a defense lawyer he would interrogate child victims of sexual abuse:

“I’m gonna rip them apart…I’m going to make sure that the rest of their life is ruined, that when they’re 8 years old, they throw up; when they’re 12 years old, they won’t sleep; when they’re 19 years old, they’ll have nightmares and they’ll never have a relationship with anybody.”

Note to Fagan: if you’re an unfortunate child who’s been the victim of one of these predators, and in the unlikely event you survive that encounter, you probably will already have these problems. And a judge who sees a trial lawyer behaving this way will probably move to have him disbarred.

Under intense public pressure, and over O’Flaherty’s opposition, the bill was finally released from Judiciary – three years after it was first filed, and after another child fell victim to another unspeakable crime.

The law passed 145 to 3 in the house and 35 to 1 in the Senate. After having been instrumental for several years in blocking the law, O’Flaherty didn’t have the guts to actually vote against a law he was so publicly opposed to when it was finally on the house floor.

Progressive Massachusetts, with so many well connected lawyers in the legislature, was only the 44th state to pass some version of Jessica’s Law.

And the trial lawyers are not done yet. They continue to look for ways to reverse mandated minimum sentences for hardcore offenders. In the legislature today the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys are promoting bills like S1740, which would eviscerate Jessica’s Law, and mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealers. Or laws like  H1754 which would reduce the size of school drug free zones.

CORI Reform

In 1972 Massachusetts established the CORI ( Criminal Offender Record Information ) law, as a central place for all Massachusetts criminal justice agencies to track anyone who comes in contact with the criminal justice system. Originally it was meant as a way for law enforcement to track offenders. But over time more and more categories of people have been able to get access to CORI records.

Today many employers and landlords require prospective employees and tenants to disclose their CORI records.

There are two sides to the argument. Some believe the public has a right to know the criminal background of those they come in contact with. On the other side there are those who say that once an offender has completed their sentence that they deserve to be re-integrated into society and that by disclosing their CORI record that their right to privacy is being violated and that it makes it difficult for former offenders to pursue a normal life.

It’s a difficult and nuanced issue.

Clearly some offenses are minor and happened far enough in the past that offenders should be able to move on with their lives without having to forever explain a single criminal mistake. On the other hand, citizens demand the right to know if they are dealing with someone who has a long history of serious and repeated criminal acts.

As sentencing guidelines have become tougher, and more people come in contact with the criminal justice system, the issues have become more important. And as the records have become more open, the impact on people’s lives has become greater.

CORI is affecting more lives for another reason, since the passage of 209a legislation, and its recent expansion under the new anti-stalking law, a person can be accused of violence in a civil court, during an ex-parte hearing where they have no right to even be heard. Often the accusations are fraudulent, to gain advantage in a divorce proceeding, or merely as a form of revenge. Even when these accusations are proved false, they still create an almost impossible to expunge CORI record.

For years now activists for CORI reform have fought to pass a number of different CORI reform acts starting in 2002. But even after years of proposing different reform measures very little has been decided – and for one simple reason. Eugene O’Flaherty has never let a CORI reform bill out of his committee.

This is a difficult issue that affects many different communities in different ways. It requires a serious effort to come up with a solution which satisfies the needs of ex-offenders, citizens, law enforcement and business leaders. A solution to this problem should involve at least a task force of experts to study different options and make a recommendation. But Eugene O’Flaherty has never let that happen.

As of today, there is another CORI reform bill languishing in committee, ignored for yet another year. But pressure for reform is growing, and it looks like this year reform advocates have managed to steer their issues from the proper venue – O’Flaherty’s Judicial Committee – to Ways and Means, where it might be attached to a budget.

This is the wrong way to do it for many reasons. The budget is a complex bill that requires many revisions. Legislators won’t have time to really examine the CORI reform provisions being attached to the budget. No study will be conducted. Massachusetts will get whatever imperfect solution CORI reform advocates are able to attach to the budget.

Shared Parenting

All modern scientific studies show that children in divorced families do best when they have equal access to both parents. Children in fatherless homes are more likely to join gangs, more likely to go to jail, and do less well in school. They are more likely to get involved with drugs. Children of fatherless homes have a higher suicide rate. And girls from fatherless homes are much more likely to get pregnant as teenagers.

Yet in Massachusetts, in 85% of the divorces mothers get full custody of children.  In the great majority of cases children are denied the right to be raised by two fit parents.

There is a law before the legislature now that would solve that problem – Shared Parenting (H1400). It would create a rebuttable presumption that in the case of families with two fit parents that the best interests of children are where science says they are – with equal shared parenting. With a rebuttable presumption judges would still have the flexibility to order any parenting plan they think is in the children’s best interests – but if they feel that option is not shared parenting the judge would simply have to give written findings.

It’s a very reasonable law – if the best option is not possible and a child’s right to both parents must be abrogated the judge should at least have to give a written opinion. This way a family has something they can address to offer their children the best possible parenting option.

Shared parenting has already been passed in many states, and there are shared parenting laws pending in many more. And in Massachusetts Shared Parenting is very popular. In 2004 in a non-binding referendum shared parenting won by 85%. The #1 issue on Deval Patrick’s issues web site has always been Shared Parenting.

Divorce rates in states with shared parenting have declined sharply, therefore divorce lawyers have been fierce opponents of shared parenting. So Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty and Sen. Cynthia Creem, both lawyers and heads of the judiciary committee have blocked shared parenting for years.

In the 5 years that these legislators have blocked Shared Parenting, the great majority children of divorced parents have been growing up without access to both of their parents. As the years pass these children are growing up without the benefits of both of their parents and have been exposed to all the social ills of losing access to one of their parents.

And yet again, only to protect the financial interests of lawyers.

Alimony Reform

Massachusetts has the most outdated alimony statute of any state. In Massachusetts once awarded alimony it is for life. Payors must pay alimony even after retirement. And if an alimony payor gets remarried, their new spouse is often liable to pay alimony for the first spouse. Many second wives are surprised to have to work to pay alimony to a non-working first spouse. This is why many lawyers recommend that no one should marry anyone who has an alimony obligation in Massachusetts.

In most states alimony is short term and there are guidelines like we have for child support.

There has been a bill before the legislature for several years to modernize alimony – H1785. It is very popular with both the voters and with legislators. It has over 70 co-sponsors, and at a recent public hearing on the bill over 300 people showed up in support of the law with no opposition from any regular citizens.

But representatives of the lawyers lobbies showed up in force to oppose it. Why? Because in Massachusetts alimony is a money machine for lawyers. Over 30% of the the actions in family court are for alimony modification. Once an alimony order has been entered, Massachusetts families must re-litigate it over and over as their lives change.

And so the bill has been blocked year after year by Rep. O’Flaherty and Sen. Creem – the representatives of the lawyers lobbies.

If not the People, Who Does O’Flaherty Really Work For?

Eugene O'Flaherty collecting his reward for co-operating with special interests

O’Flaherty is not the only opponent of these laws, the entire legislature is full of legislators who primarily represent, not the voters of their district, but some special interest. Often the lawyers lobby.

So O’Flaherty is the one who blocks the bills that the laweyers don’t like, and takes the heat for everyone. So long as he can keep these popular bills in committee, legislators don’t have to go on record opposing popular bills. In fact, when the bills finally make it to the floor they fairly trip over themselves to vote for them.

In return for his service to the rest of the legislature, O’Flaherty reaps a few rewards for Chelsea, while he sells out the state to the lawyers lobby.

Rep Bob DeLeo, the Speaker of the House calls O’Flaherty:

One of the best legislators when it comes to obtaining local budget earmarks.

When the Tobin Bridge was set to transfer from Massport to the newly created Department of Transportation, Chelsea was in line to lose a $600,000 per year state subsidy. But because of O’Flaherty’s loyal service to party insiders, Chelsea was allowed to keep its subsidy.

Look at O’Flaherty’s campaign contributors ( 09, 08, 07, 06, 05 ). They aren’t, for the most part, the regular citizens of Chelsea that he nominally represents – but lawyers of all kinds, PAC’s and lobbyists. He takes money almost every year from such lobbyists as:

And of course lots and lots of criminal defense attorneys, whose interests he puts first ahead of the people.

O’Flaherty is not Invincible

O’Flaherty has long been an opponent of gay rights and gay marriage. Gay marriage is not a popular issue in socially conservative Chelsea. So gay rights activists ran a gay candidate against O’Flaherty, Chris Sciavone in 2006, right around the time that O’Flaherty was taking heat over his deadly opposition to drunk driving laws.

And O’Flaherty knuckled under quickly. Once he saw Sciavone raising money at packed $200 a plate fundraisers he quickly changed his position from opposing gay marriage to vocally supporting it. He even appeared in Boston’s premiere gay news paper “Bay Windows

You see, O’Flaherty knows his support in Chelsea is not particularly strong. In the last election, even though he ran unopposed, he garnered a mere 6000 votes. Many voters did not even bother to check his name off on the ballot – leaving it blank on over 25% of the ballots.

Sadly, no one is running against O’Flaherty so far this year. I don’t understand why. He is badly out of tune with this district, and increasingly unpopular, not only across the state, but with his constituents. A decent, pro-family candidate could probably easily unseat him.

The people of Massachusetts deserve better.