Veterans Restorative Justice Act witnesses bad surprise in the Legislature in month of April

ST. PAUL — The story of the Veterans Restorative Justice Act in 2021 was about two somewhat similar versions, one in the House and one in the Senate, being considered for bipartisan approval — until a twist in the plot came along.

It’s a third version, and it is not supported by The American Legion. With the May 17 deadline looming, veterans advocates are hoping lawmakers don’t pass Senate File 1633.

To explain, let’s go back.

House File 478 is the version The American Legion has supported since 2019, along with the Minnesota Commanders’ Task Force. It is the product of a stakeholder group that met for over a year and included prosecutors, public defenders, courts and veterans.

Rep. Sandra Feist of New Brighton is the lead author. She is in her first year and has expressed interest in helping veterans.
Senate File 116, authored by Sen. Roger Chamberlain of Lino Lakes is the Senate’s version of the bill. Chamberlain is a member of The American Legion.

Feist and Chamberlain are members of different parties.

HF 478 has passed in the House and is being sent to a House-Senate Conference Committee. SF 116 stalled in Sen. Warren Limmer’s Judicial Committee and will not advance to Conference Committee. It stalled in Limmer’s committee in previous legislative sessions, too.

Limmer stated, in 2020, that he opposes veterans courts because he feels they could be a slippery slope that leads to special courts for other groups of people.

Now, the twist. Surprising all the bill’s watchers, Sen. Jason Rarick of Pine City put forth a version of VRJA. His SF 1633 was brought straight to the Senate floor, skipping the committee process, and passed.

VRJA advocates say SF 1633 is a step backward. It restricts veterans allowed in veterans court, and it would gut the existing veterans courts in Minnesota. Less than a third of Minnesota counties have veterans courts available.

Todd Kemery, chairman of the CTF, said, “This version would leave veterans behind. We want no veterans left behind.”

SF 1633 is not supported by prosecutors, public defenders, victims-rights advocates or any veterans organization.

In the upcoming House-Senate Conference Committee, five representatives and five senators will vote to decide which version should be sent to the governor’s desk. They could vote to decide they cannot agree which version should become law, which means no version will become law.

“That is preferable to the Senate version becoming law,” Kemery said.

The names and Conference Committee votes will be reported in the June Legionnaire, along with a rundown of other veterans-related legislation.

Call your lawmaker

This measure is not a Democrat or Republican issue. It has supporters and opponents within both parties.

The real issue: Legislators who say they support veterans need to show it by voting for bills that veterans support.

Call your state representative and senator and tell them the Conference Committee must pass the House version of the bill because it is the original version (and it has D and R support) and the one The American Legion Department of Minnesota Executive Committee favors.