LINCOLN, Neb. (CNS) — Nebraska state senators overrode Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto of a bill repealing capital punishment that had been supported by the state’s Catholic bishops.
In a 30-19 vote May 27, the senators supported a bill that replaces the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison without parole.
The bill had gained the support of Nebraska’s three Catholic bishops, who earlier commended lawmakers for their historic vote May 20 to repeal capital punishment. They said then that support for the bill reflects the teaching of the Catholic faith and that use of the death penalty cannot be justified today.
Ricketts vetoed the bill May 26, but legislators acted quickly. The 30 votes were just enough to override the veto. Under statehouse rules in the unicameral legislature, at least 30 of 49 senators must vote to overturn a gubernatorial veto.
“Our support for this bill also flows from our prayerful reflection on the words of Jesus Christ himself: ‘Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father,'” said the state’s three bishops, Archbishop George J. Lucas of Omaha and Bishops James D. Conley of Lincoln and Joseph G. Hanefeldt of Grand Island.
Their joint statement was issued by the Nebraska Catholic Conference, which represents the bishops’ public policy interests.
Lawmakers had originally voted 32-15 to pass the bill.
With the vote, Nebraska became the 19th state to end the use of the death penalty.
Ricketts had lobbied against repeal but supporters of the bill were optimistic that lawmakers could muster the 30 votes needed to override the veto, said Greg Schleppenbach, executive director of the state Catholic conference.
In an email message to members of the Catholic Advocacy Network of Nebraska, the Catholic conference’s new grass-roots faithful citizenship initiative, Schleppenbach urged people to send a note of thanks to senators who voted for repeal.
Earlier in May, Archbishop George J. Lucas of Omaha joined about 15 religious leaders, priests and nuns at a news conference in Omaha in calling for an end to the death penalty. At the May 13 event, Archbishop Lucas said he was pleased and privileged “to join friends from other faith communities at this important moment.”
The effort to override the veto was led by state Sen. Colby Coash, a Republican who is Catholic. He told the Lincoln Journal Star that he was motivated by his faith and church teaching on the death penalty to urge fellow legislators to first pass the bill and then override the veto.
“This is consistent with my pro-life views, but it’s also consistent with trying to make government more efficient. With the death penalty, taxpayers are not getting what they’re paying for,” he said in an interview with the newspaper.
“If any other programs were as costly or inefficient as this, we would have gotten rid of them,” he said.
The Catholic Mobilizing Network, an organization working to end the use of the death penalty around the country, welcomed the override in a statement May 27.
“Republicans, Democrats and independents reached across the aisle to champion repeal, making Nebraska the first red state in recent years to end the death penalty,” the organization said. “The bipartisan success today demonstrates growing recognition that the death penalty is a broken and morally bankrupt public policy.”
Nebraska is the seventh state to abolish capital punishment since 2007; it is the first state with a Republican-controlled legislature to do so since 1973.
Ricketts condemned the decision in a statement released just after the override vote: “My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical tool to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families. While the Legislature has lost touch with the citizens of Nebraska, I will continue to stand with Nebraskans and law enforcement on this important issue.”
The office of Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson issued a statement taking issue with the provision of the repeal measure, known as L.B 268, saying the new law will apply retroactively, giving those currently on death row a sentence of life without parole.
Peterson’s office said the provision is unconstitutional.
“Nebraska’s Constitution reserves to the Board of Pardons the exclusive power to change final sentences impost by the courts,” it said, adding that Peterson will “seek a court decision, at the appropriate time, to resolve the issue of the state’s authority to carry out death sentences previously ordered by Nebraska’s courts for the 10 inmates now on death row.”
Bishop Conley took to Twitter to commend legislators for their vote. In the hours leading to the vote he asked Nebraskan Catholics to call their legislators to urge them to override the veto. He also called for prayers for public safety forces and the victims of crime.
After the vote he tweeted: “The Nebraska Leg admirably repealed the death penalty today. All human life has dignity — it’s time to end abortion and euthanasia too!”