Republicans, Oregon Right to Life sue over abortion bill’s readability

Two Oregon Republican legislators and an anti-abortion group are suing top legislative leaders, alleging that they broke state law because the written summary of a major bill on abortion and gender-affirming care isn’t easy to understand. 

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Marion County Circuit Court by Rep. Emily McIntire of Eagle Point, Sen. Suzanne Weber of Tillamook and Oregon Right to Life, coincides with a Republican walkout in the Senate over the same readability issues on other bills.

They’re seeking to block a Senate vote on House Bill 2002, which passed the House on Monday. The suit names Senate President Rob Wagner and House Speaker Dan Rayfield, both Democrats, as well as Senate Secretary Lori Brocker and House Chief Clerk Tim Sekerak. 

At issue is a 1979 law stating that summaries explaining legislation must meet a score of 60 on the Flesch readability test or a similar test. The test, named for Associated Press consultant Rudolf Flesch, runs from 0 to 100. Lower scores are for more difficult reading material, while someone with a middle-school education could read and understand a document with a score of 60. 

HB 2002’s summary scores a 20 on an online Flesch calculator, meaning it’s best understood by a college graduate. The lawsuit contends that a difficult-to-read summary of a bill amounts to a literacy test, blocking people from participating in the legislative process if they can’t understand a bill. 

“Would-be petitioners seeking to petition legislators to support or oppose bills on particular issues can’t be aware of the need for such petitioning absent a proper plain-language summary which would alert them to bills they wish to investigate and about which they might wish to petition their legislative representatives,” the lawsuit said. “With the many bills introduced in each legislation (sic), the summaries are the Legislature’s chosen means of communicating bills’ contents to the public.” 

Rayfield’s spokeswoman wasn’t immediately available, and a spokesman for Wagner said he was in a committee hearing. 

When reached by phone, an Oregon Right to Life spokesman said the Capital Chronicle could email questions but that the organization would likely defer to legislators. 

Neither McIntire nor Weber immediately returned phone calls Wednesday afternoon. 

In a statement shared by a spokeswoman, Weber said Wagner and Democrats were “willfully” ignoring rules. 

“It is clear that legislation we adopt must be plainly written and easy to understand,” she said. “Anything less disenfranchises Oregonians across the state and violates the law in the process. If Democrats refuse to comply, it is our responsibility to hold them accountable to process and rules.”

McIntire added: “Democracy can only function when Oregonians can engage in the process – when government attorneys cannot even understand the contents of the bill, there is a clear problem.” 

Julia Shumway is deputy editor of Oregon Capital Chronicle and has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.