JUST BEFORE the Legislature met in joint session on Wednesday, House Speaker Thomas Finneran called House members into caucus and solemnly urged them to be good little lawmakers.
They should sit in their chairs and pay attention to the debate, the speaker is said to have advised. Noting the international media present, he reminded his charges that the eyes of the world were upon them. Thus legislators should conduct themselves in a way that did them all credit, Finneran urged.
Given the speaker's oft-polished pride in the House, his acute sense of the historical moment, and his admonition to the members, one had every reason to expect that the House leader would be the very personification of high-minded, statesman-like conduct.
Certainly the night before he had assured reporters that he had no tricks up his sleeve. Or at least a conventional understanding of conversational English might well have led the unwary to that conclusion.
"I don't think there's any room here for parliamentary maneuvering," Finneran said. "I think the issues that have been raised are grave enough to make sure that we take them up one at a time in a substantive fashion."
But the constitutional convention had barely begun when the speaker sprang just such a ploy on his colleagues. Taking advantage of the courtesy that Senate President Robert Travaglini, the presiding officer, had extended by recognizing Finneran to make opening remarks, the speaker offered a sudden amendment of his own.
It would have restricted marriage to a man and a woman but held out the vague prospect of civil unions being passed legislatively. Why, civil union legislation could be on the floor for debate in little more than a week's time, suggested the man who has long resisted lesser forms of accommodation for homosexual couples. So, just to review: The speaker would have altered a Constitution he claims to revere by abusing the process to introduce a last-minute amendment members had no idea was coming and thus no chance to analyze.
Travaglini, who sources say was told of Finneran's intent only at the last second, was widely said to be miffed. Although the Senate chief kept his own counsel, the Senate minority leader, Brian Lees, who had had the floor when Finneran rose to speak, was blunt.
"What happened a few moments ago absolutely shocked me," said Lees, whose own proposed amendment, co-authored with Travaglini, would not have come up for debate if Finneran's had not gone down to narrow defeat.
Now, Lees is refreshingly outspoken, so his comments were no surprise. What was remarkable was the vehemence with which several of Finneran's own members rose to chastise the speaker.
Representative Michael Festa of Melrose called Finneran's maneuver "an extraordinary misuse of the parliamentary process" and suggested that the prospect he held out for some sort of civil unions was "a shameless illusion that we are going to do something."
"We have half a piece of paper that says trust us," Festa said, referring to the copies of Finneran's amendment that circulated as the debate proceeded. "Do not be seduced by this piece of paper."
"I resent the fact that we are . . . spending time on this amendment," said Representative Charles Murphy of Burlington, who said the speaker had taken all the members by surprise and "abused his power."
When Representative Cory Atkins of Concord spoke, she made it clear that House members had long wanted to debate domestic partnership or civil union legislation only to be thwarted by Finneran. She also pointedly thanked Travaglini, who presided over the constitutional convention, for "the kind of leadership that we in the House have yearned for for years."
After Representative Eugene O'Flaherty of Chelsea spoke in favor of Finneran's amendment, saying he was certain the speaker would make good on his promise to bring civil union legislation to the floor, he was greeted by a series of derisive laughs, masquerading as coughing attacks, from the back of the chamber.
Through most of it, the speaker sat behind the podium and affected lighthearted conversation with various legislators.
Still, it couldn't have been comfortable watching his leadership mocked in his own chamber. And yet it was an appropriate rebuke for a man who urged his members to an irreproachable standard of conduct -- and then utterly failed to live up to his own words.
Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.