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Oregon Supreme Court stops 10 GOP lawmakers from running for re-election, siding with Democrat's ballot ban

The Oregon Supreme Court sided with the Democratic secretary of state's move banning 10 GOP senators from the ballot over a walkout last summer.

The Oregon Supreme Court decided on Thursday that 10 Republican state senators who participated in a record-long boycott last summer to block bills extending access to abortion for minors, transgender procedures and medical intervention, as well as another measure on ghost guns, cannot seek re-election this year. 

The Oregon Senate Republican Caucus charged that the "Democrat-stacked supreme court sides with Democrats and union cronies on Measure 113 despite plain language of Constitution." The caucus stressed that the state high court's decision is "effectively ending the service of 10 Republican senators, who represent one-third of the Oregon Senate." 

The ruling upholds Democratic Oregon Secretary of State LaVonne Griffin-Valade's announcement last August to disqualify the 10 lawmakers from the ballot under a measure aimed at stopping such boycotts. Measure 113, passed by voters in 2022, amended the state constitution to bar lawmakers from re-election if they have more than 10 unexcused absences.

Last year’s boycott lasted six weeks – the longest in state history – and stalled hundreds of bills. Five lawmakers sued over the secretary of state’s decision – Sens. Tim Knopp, Daniel Bonham, Suzanne Weber, Dennis Linthicum and Lynn Findley. They were among the 10 GOP senators who racked up more than 10 absences.  

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"We obviously disagree with the Supreme Court’s ruling. But more importantly, we are deeply disturbed by the chilling impact this decision will have to crush dissent," Senate Republican Leader Knopp said Thursday. 

"I'm disappointed but can't say I'm surprised that a court of judges appointed solely by Gov. [Kate] Brown and Gov. [Tina] Kotek would rule in favor of political rhetoric rather than their own precedent. The only winners in this case are Democrat politicians and their union backers," Weber added. 

"Every legal mind I’ve heard from, regardless of political leanings, has affirmed that when there is only one interpretation for the plain language of the law, that is final," Bonham added. "The language incorporated into the Oregon Constitution was clear and yet the Supreme Court ruled that voter intent, which cannot be determined by any metric, supersedes the Constitution. There is no justice in a political court." 

In deciding to remove the GOP lawmakers from the ballot, Griffin-Valade had directed her office’s elections division to implement an administrative rule based on her stance.

During oral arguments before the Oregon Supreme Court in December, attorneys for the senators and the state wrestled over the grammar and syntax of the language that was added to the state constitution after Measure 113 was approved by voters. 

The amendment says a lawmaker is not allowed to run "for the term following the election after the member’s current term is completed." The senators claimed the amendment meant they could seek another term, since a senator’s term ends in January while elections are held the previous November. They argue the penalty doesn’t take effect immediately, but rather, after they’ve served another term.

The two sides also wrestled with the slight differences in wording that appeared on the actual ballot that voters filled out and the text of the measure as included in the voters’ pamphlet.

The ballot said the result of a vote in favor of the measure would disqualify legislators with 10 or more unexcused absences from holding office for the "term following current term of office." It did not include the word "election," as the text of the measure that appeared in the pamphlet did. What appeared in the pamphlet was ultimately added to the state constitution.

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The state argued that in casting a "yes" vote in support of the measure, voters intended that legislators with that many absences be barred from running after their current term is up.

All parties in the suit had sought clarity on the issue before the March 2024 filing deadline for candidates who want to run in this year’s election.

Oregon voters approved Measure 113 by a wide margin following Republican walkouts in the Legislature in 2019, 2020 and 2021, according to the Associated Press. 

The 2023 walkout, which paralyzed the Legislature for weeks in preventing the state Senate from reaching a two-thirds quorum, ended after concessions from Democrats on a sweeping bill related to expanding access to abortion for minors and transgender procedures and medical intervention that Republicans had deemed too extreme and an affront to parental rights. 

The initial measure would have allowed doctors to provide abortions regardless of a patient’s age, with medical providers not required to notify the parents of a minor in certain cases. 

As part of the deal to end the walkout, Democrats agreed to change language concerning parental notifications for abortion. Under the compromise, if an abortion provider believes notifying the parents of a patient under 15 years old would not be in that patient’s best interest, the physician would not have to notify the parents – but would need another provider to concur. However, no second opinion would be needed if involving a parent or guardian would lead to the abuse or neglect of the patient.

Democrats said the measure will still ensure abortion access and protect caregivers from measures restricting abortion or sex reassignment procedures passed by other states. It will also require that health insurance covers "medically necessary" sex reassignment procedures for treating gender dysphoria. 

Democrats also agreed to drop several amendments to a bill that would punish the manufacture or transfer of undetectable firearms. The now-removed clauses would have increased the purchasing age from 18 to 21 for semiautomatic rifles and placed more limits on concealed carry.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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