Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson publicly apologized on the Senate floor today for what he called an "inaccurate statement" to a group of pastors. The Willmar DFLer told the group in January that several Minnesota Supreme Court justices assured him they wouldn't overturn a state law banning same sex marriage.
Johnson said today that he has not received any commitments on potential judicial decisions from any member of the Supreme Court. But Johnson's apology doesn't end the matter for some supporters of a constitutional marriage amendment.
This is the second time Johnson has publicly apologized for his comments to the pastors. He told reporters a week and a half ago that he made a mistake, and he asked for forgiveness during an emotional half-hour discussion. His apology on the Senate floor lasted less than two minutes, and covered the same ground.
"I regret the statement I made," he said. "I have apologized outside this forum earlier, and today, I apologize to this, the body of the Minnesota state Senate, my constituents and the people of Minnesota."
Johnson must also apologize in writing to the organizers of the pastors meeting. An ethics complaint against him will then be dismissed.
But Johnson's apology doesn't go far enough for a group calling on Johnson to resign. Minnesota Citizens in Defense of Marriage has taken out newspaper ads and is collecting signatures calling for Johnson to step down from office. The group's president, Jeff Davis, says it's still unclear whether Johnson talked to judges about cases that could come before the court, or whether Johnson lied about the matter.
"In either situation, we think that Dean Johnson has apparently committed what we believe is a pretty serious offense here. Secret conversations between a sitting legislative leader with Supreme Court justices about a potential court case undermines the system of checks and balances inherent in our constitutional doctrine," Davis said.
"If it didn't occur, then he's repeatedly lied to constituents on this matter."
Chief Justice Russell Anderson has said no current or former justices talked to Johnson about the state's Defense of Marriage Act. Davis says the controversy over Johnson's comments won't end until the full Senate votes on a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The bill's sponsor, Republican Michele Bachmann, tried to bring the measure up for a floor vote last week, but her attempt failed.
If the measure gets on the November ballot, a new poll indicates it might not pass. The poll was sponsored by Equality Minnesota, an advocacy group for same-sex couples. The poll found slightly more than half of the 625 Minnesota voters surveyed in January oppose the amendment, while 40 percent support it. Pollster Bill Morris says the lengthy survey included questions outlining arguments both for and against the proposed amendment, and then asked voters again if they supported it.
"There was very, very little change in opinion. About a 1 percent, 2 percent swing at most, with a majority still indicating opposition to the so-called Bachmann amendment."
The poll's margin of error is plus or minus four percentage points. Morris says when voters were told that the amendment would also outlaw civil unions and domestic partnerships for unmarried couples, support for the amendment dropped to 28 percent. Supporters of the measure say the poll isn't reliable, because it doesn't tell voters that marriage laws are being challenged in other states.
"If they prefaced it with, 'Iowa has just had a lawsuit filed against their DOMA law by New York-based Lambda Legal, while their marriage amendment is bottled up in their Senate committee, do you think we need a marriage amendment?' And we find when we talk to people, they say, of course we do," said Chuck Darrell, communications director for Minnesota for Marriage, another group supporting the amendment.
The bill will get a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee next week. That same committee defeated the measure two years ago.