Friday, March 31, 2017

Opportunity Knocks

On Monday, when we took up Sen. Jennifer Fielder’s bill creating a constitutional right to fish, hunt and trap, I had that familiar, sinking feeling that the Montana Senate had once again given up on logic for the day.*

The idea is lunatic enough as it is – after all, fishing, hunting and trapping are simply pastimes enjoyed by a minority of the population and in that sense no more worthy of constitutional protection than canoeing or skiing or drinking beer or crocheting or … well, you get the idea.  But then Sen. Fred Thomas doubled down on this foolishness by rising to his feet, voice trembling with righteous indignation, to insist that we had to pass this bill because our “rights are under attack.” I don’t know, but it seems to me that if the bill creates rights that we don’t currently have, it’s hard to see how they’re already under attack.** 

What Fielder and her pals were doing here was protecting their own interests by claiming a right that doesn’t really exist. They want access to public lands, resources and wildlife for their own benefit, and they resent the fact that, particularly in the case of trapping, there are other Montanans who dispute how those lands should be used and how that wildlife should be treated. What better way is there to prevail in that kind of dispute than to claim some imaginary right to do whatever you want, and attack your opponents for suppressing that right?

But Fielder was in something of a quandary when she proposed to create a right and in the same breath assert she already had it. She tried to get out of the mess by claiming that all she was doing was “clarifying” what the voters intended when they added the hunting and fishing provision to the Montana constitution in 2004. You can read that provision (Article IX,Section 7) for yourself, but since all it says is that the opportunity to harvest fish and game is to be forever preserved, you’ll probably be hard pressed to conclude that – oops! – what we really meant was that there’s a right to trap.

Sen. Jed Hinkle, by the way, made a big deal out of that opportunity language. Why, he claimed, we don’t even know what the term means. It can’t be found in a legal dictionary! So when we protected the opportunity to hunt and fish, Hinkle figures, we must have really meant the right to hunt and fish and trap. This linguistic legerdemain might have been a little more plausible if, in his closing comments, Hinkle hadn’t shot himself in the foot by noting that with this bill we had – wait for it – a “great opportunity” to define that most obscure of words: opportunity!

Fielder’s bill to amend the Constitution got out of the Senate with 30 votes aye (all Republican) and 20 votes no (18 Democrats and 2 Republicans).**  It takes the aye votes of 100 legislators to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, so the bill needs 70 votes in the House to move forward, and that probably ain’t going to happen. But you might just give your representative a little nudge to make sure it doesn’t. Opportunity knocks.

*You can listen to the whole sorry debate here.

**Technically, the bill doesn’t actually create a right to fish, hunt and trap. Rather, it asks the voters to put that right into the Montana constitution.

***You can check out how your senator voted here.