Who let the dogs out? A bipartisan group of senators.
At least eight states allow dogs in courtrooms, to ease witnesses while on the stand, particularly during the recounting of traumatic testimony such as child abuse or sexual abuse.
But not everyone agrees with the practice. In a first, a New York state lawyer in 2011 appealed his client’s rape conviction on the grounds that the alleged victim was accompanied by a comfort dog while giving her testimony, biasing the jury. The court ultimately disagreed, upholding the original decision, but the issue was thrust into the spotlight.
What the legislation does
The Courthouse Dogs Act would clarify that federal courts can allow licensed therapy dogs or “certified facility dogs” on the premises.
The dog must be accompanied by a trained handler, and the request to allow the dog must be made to the court at least 14 days in advance.
The legislation also clarifies that federal courts can impose additional restrictions, such as potentially hiding the dog from the jury’s view.
The Senate version was introduced on April 4, 2019 as bill number S. 1029, by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX). The House version was introduced seven months later on December 11, 2019 as bill number H.R. 5403, by Rep. Mary Scanlon (D-PA5).
What supporters say
Supporters argue the legislation helps make the path just a little bit easier, for those forced to relive one of the most painful and horrific experiences of their life.
“We are learning about the use of these wonderful trained dogs to help child victims of sexual assault,” Sen. Cornyn said in a video put out by his office. “Witnesses who were traumatized were able — by virtue of these trained animals — to feel more safe, comforted, and then provide evidence in the courtroom.”
“It helps the witnesses tell their story, so the jury and the judge can hear it. But yet [it] does not appeal to the sympathies, perhaps, of the jury by seeing the dog in the courtroom,” Sen. Cornyn continued. “And perhaps we can see this spread to more state and local courts as well.”
What opponents say
Opponents counter that the legislation, while well-intentioned, produces sympathy with a supposedly-impartial jury. After all, who doesn’t love dogs?
“I think it distracts the jurors from what their job is, which is to determine the truthfulness of the testimony,” Denver defense lawyer Christopher Decker told the Associated Press in an article. “It tends to imply or infer that there has been some victimization. It tends to engender sympathy. It’s highly prejudicial.”
Odds of passage
The Senate version first attracted four bipartisan cosponsors, two Democrats and two Republicans. The chamber passed it on December 19 by voice vote, a procedure used for noncontroversial legislation in which no record of individual votes is recorded.
It now awaits a possible vote in the House, where it’s attracted three bipartisan cosponsors, two Republicans and one Democrat.