"Choose Life" plates advance; Standing Bear commemorated

Feb. 28, 2017, 5:55 a.m. ·

Sen. Ernie Chambers addresses his colleagues (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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The Nebraska Legislature took a step Tuesday toward authorizing “Choose Life” license plates, taking a procedural shortcut that could have future repercussions. And senators read a dramatic account from an historic trial, in the lead up to Wednesday’s statehood day celebration.

It was the third day of debate on Sen. Dan Watermeier’s proposal to authorize “Choose Life” specialty license plates for motorists who want to buy them. And the discussion was covering familiar ground.

Watermeier urged his colleagues to support his proposal. It would charge people who want the plates an additional $5 per year, or an additional $45 if they want them personalized, with proceeds going to supplement federal funds for needy families. Watermeier cited an estimate from the Department of Motor Vehicles that 2,500 people would buy the new plates.

Other senators opposed the idea of the state offering a message in support of one side of the abortion debate. Among them was Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, who said if the state was going to offer “Choose Life” plates, it should also offer plates with the words “End Rape Culture.”

Sen. Ernie Chambers also opposed the bill, offering two dozen amendments to replace “Choose Life” with words such as “No One is Above the Law.” Shortly after that amendment was defeated on a vote of 32-1, Watermeier moved to cut off debate. Speaker Jim Scheer ruled there had been “full and fair debate,” and proceeded to a vote on cloture.

Earlier this year, Scheer said he would generally let debate last for six hours on the first round of debate before allowing a cloture vote, with certain exceptions. This motion was made after less than four and a half hours. Nevertheless, senators approved it on a vote of 36-6 before giving the bill first round approval.

Chambers then excoriated his colleagues. “Louis XIV said ‘L’etat c’est moi – I am the state.’ That’s what your speaker just told you docile, compliant, weak people. And we’re going to see if it achieves what he told you, or led you to believe it would achieve. Why do you invoke cloture? To cut off debate, in the hope that time will be saved.”

Chambers then began to filibuster against a bill accompanying the license plate bill, giving the Department of Motor Vehicles $9,600 to reprogram its computers to accommodate the new plates.

In a later interview, Scheer explained his ruling. “The floor discussion had moved to just one individual talking and the debate was not a debate on the topic, it was about various other things other than the item that was on the floor to be debated. And at that point I decided it was time to move on,” Scheer said.

Asked if he feared his move would backfire and provoke more filibusters, Scheer said he couldn’t worry about it. “If Sen. Chambers wants to continue to maneuver the system and utilize time, that’s what he’s said on many occasions, (that’s) certainly his prerogative. But we as a floor, as a body, will continue to move forward,” Scheer said, adding “Maybe at a snail’s pace, but at least we’ll be moving forward.”

Amidst the rancor Tuesday, there was also a moment of unity. In preparation for Wednesday’s statehood day festivities, Sen. Pansing Brooks said she wanted to celebrate the native people who had preceded European settlers in the state.

Pansing Brooks narrated from Omaha journalist Thomas Tibbles account of the 1879 trial in Omaha of Chief Standing Bear. Standing Bear was arrested for leaving Indian Territory in Oklahoma to bury his son in the tribe’s traditional lands along the Niobrara River in Nebraska.

For the PBS documentary on Standing Bear, click here.

Pansing Brooks read Tibble’s account, while Sen. Tom Brewer, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and Nebraska’s first Native American legislator, read Standing Bear’s words to Judge Elmer Dundy. “The old chief became silent again and after an appreciable pause, with such a look of suffering and pathos on his face that none who saw it will forget it,” Pansing Brooks read.

Brewer continued with Standing Bear’s words: “In the center of the path there stands a man. Behind him I see soldiers in numbers like the leaves of the trees. If that man gives me permission, I may pass on to life and liberty. If he refuses, I must go back and sink beneath the flood.”

“Then,” Pansing Brooks said, he continued “in a lower tone:

“You are the man,” Brewer said, quoting Standing Bear.

Days later, Dundy ruled that “an Indian is a person” within the meaning of the law and ordered Standing Bear released.

After the reading, lawmakers of different political stripes stood and applauded.

Chambers, who is black, said they should have adjourned, and addressed a message to his white colleagues. “What you all heard was a performance. What I heard was a religious observation – a declaration that people who prior to that trial were the un-people. The non-people. And when Senators Pansing Brooks, Sen. Brewer concluded, you all clapped like you were at a show – at a performance to be entertained. You will never understand the import of those words,” Chambers said.

His motion to adjourn having failed, Chambers then filibustered the license plate appropriation bill for the rest of the morning.