Five Republican senators and attorneys representing the state are seeking a quick resolution from the Oregon Supreme Court on the senators’ challenge to a voter-approved state law intended to block them from running for reelection after they ground the legislative session to a halt for six weeks.
Last year, voters frustrated with Republican lawmakers’ increasing reliance on quorum-blocking walkouts passed a constitutional amendment to bar any senator with more than 10 unexcused absences from serving another term. Ten conservative senators passed that point in May, and they stayed away for another month as they protested bills on abortion, transgender health care and guns.
Now, half of the affected senators are arguing that the voter-approved law wasn’t written clearly, and that they should be able to run for reelection. They sued Secretary of State LaVonne Griffin-Valade late Friday, seeking a court order that would allow them to file for reelection.
The suing senators, including Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, represent districts that span the state, from the northwest coast to the far reaches of eastern Oregon and up and down the Cascade range. Some have years of experience in the Legislature.
They filed the case with the Oregon Court of Appeals, but attorneys for the senators and state Department of Justice lawyers representing Griffin-Valade submitted a joint request to skip the appeals court and go straight to the state Supreme Court.
“A definitive ruling on the issue presented by this case is needed before the March 12, 2024, candidate filing deadline (and, ideally, far enough in advance of that deadline to give meaningful notice to candidates),” the attorneys wrote. “The filing deadline is less than seven months away; as a result, even with an expedited briefing and argument schedule there is not enough time to seek judicial review in both the Oregon Court of Appeals and Oregon Supreme Court.”
They asked for an expedited schedule before the Supreme Court, with the senators filing their first brief by Sept. 29 and all written arguments submitted by Nov. 10. Oral arguments, if they happen, should occur on or before Dec. 8, the parties requested.
Three of the Republican senators who sued – Knopp and Sens. Dennis Linthicum of Klamath Falls and Lynn Findley of Vale – have terms that end in January 2025. The other two, Sens. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles and Suzanne Weber, R-Tillamook, won’t face election until 2026 if they’re allowed to run.
Sens. Brian Boquist, I-Dallas; Bill Hansell, R-Athena, and Art Robinson, R-Cave Junction, also collected more absences than allowed and would face election in 2024. Hansell announced his retirement earlier this year and Robinson, who missed the entire 2023 legislative session for medical reasons, isn’t expected to run again. Boquist has indicated he plans to run if allowed.
Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, accrued more absences than allowed but is not involved in the lawsuit. She would be up for re-election in 2026.
The senators’ argument rests on how the court interprets the end of the single sentence voters added to the state constitution with last year’s Measure 113: “Failure to attend, without permission or excuse, 10 or more legislative floor sessions called to transact business during a regular or special legislative session shall be deemed disorderly behavior and shall disqualify the member from holding office as a senator or representative for the term following the election after the member’s current term is completed.”
Griffin-Valade, Senate President Rob Wagner and most observers interpreted that to mean lawmakers who miss 10 or more floor sessions can’t run for reelection. But because elections happen in November and legislative terms end the following January, the Republican senators contend it doesn’t apply to the next term but the one after that. That would mean Knopp, for instance, could serve another four-year term but would be barred from election in 2028 because of his absences in 2023.
The Oregon’s 13 Constitutional Defense Fund, a political action committee Knopp set up this spring to fund the senators’ legal fight, is nearly $60,000 in the hole after minimal fundraising and a $63,000 bill from Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, the Portland-based law firm representing the senators, according to state campaign finance records.
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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.