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Oregon unions weigh in on senators’ walkout lawsuit

Unions and progressive advocacy groups that advocated for a new voter-approved law to punish lawmakers for walkouts are weighing in on a lawsuit by a group of Republican senators that challenges how the secretary of state interpreted the law. 

Supporters of the new law filed two amicus, or friend of the court, briefs urging the Oregon Supreme Court to uphold Secretary of State LaVonne Griffin-Valade’s ruling that a handful of Republican senators who missed more than 10 days of work are ineligible to run for reelection. If the court upholds the law, one-third of the Senate will be ineligible to run for reelection. 

Five Republican senators – Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp of Bend and Sens. Daniel Bonham of The Dalles, Lynn Findley of Vale, Dennis Linthicum of Klamath Falls and Suzanne Weber of Tillamook – filed the lawsuit. Ten of the 13 Republicans in the 30-member Senate would be ineligible for reelection if the Supreme Court upholds the law because of their participation in a walkout over controversial abortion, gun and transgender health care bills that ground the Senate to a halt for six weeks. 

The senators argue that the law was poorly worded, and that a plain-text reading means they’re barred from serving the term after their next term – meaning a senator whose term expires in January 2025 could run for another four-year term in 2024 but couldn’t run for reelection in 2028. State attorneys and the groups that filed briefs late last week backing them rejected that argument. 

Andrea Kennedy-Smith, vice president of a Service Employees International Union chapter, SEIU Local 503, that represents most state employees, and Reed Scott-Schwalbach, president of the Oregon Education Association, were the chief petitioners for the voter-approved law, Measure 113, and filed one of the briefs. The other brief came from a coalition comprising SEIU, the Oregon Education Association, Oregon’s American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, and progressive groups including the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, Basic Rights Oregon, the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon and Acción Política PCUNista, the campaign arm of farmworker union Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, or PCUN. 

Both briefs urged the court to pay attention to what voters read about the proposed law on their ballots, in the state-issued voters’ pamphlet and in contemporaneous news coverage. Kennedy-Smith and Scott-Schwalbach noted in their brief that Linthicum, one of the plaintiffs, signed off on an explanatory statement for voters that said the measure would disqualify “the legislator from holding office after the legislator’s current term ends.”

They also noted that senators didn’t object to the measure’s wording until months after voters approved the measure.

“This eleventh hour defense should be viewed for what it is: an attempt to evade the consequences of petitioners’ decision to bring the work of the people to a halt by not attending floor sessions for over six weeks, thereby accumulating more than ten unexcused absences,” wrote their attorney, Margaret Olney of Portland-based Bennett Hartman. 

The brief filed by advocacy groups warned the court against “eviscerating” Measure 113, noting that their advocacy groups have been stymied by Republican walkouts. Their attorneys, Steven Berman and Lydia Anderson-Dana of Portland-based Stoll Berne, wrote that most voters read only the description of Measure 113 printed on their ballots, not the full text of the measure. 

“For voters there was no ambiguity,” they wrote. “They were asked to vote on whether legislators with 10 unexcused absences should be ‘disqualified from holding next term of office.’” 

More than 68% of voters supported the measure. 

The senators have until Nov. 13 to file another brief rebutting the state’s points. Oral arguments are set for Dec. 14, with a decision at some point after that. Candidates have until March 12 to file for office. 

Knopp, Findley, Linthicum and three other Republicans involved in the walkout – Brian Boquist of Dallas, Bill Hansell of Athena and Art Robinson of Cave Junction – represent districts with elections in 2024. Hansell announced his retirement, while Boquist, Knopp, Linthicum and Robinson filed for reelection and were disqualified by the Secretary of State’s Office. 

Bonham, Weber and Sens. Cedric Hayden, R-Fall Creek and Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer also ran afoul of Measure 113, but their terms last until 2027. 

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