House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, and Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, explain to reporters at the Capitol on Thursday, Feb. 27, why they decided to issue subpoenas to state representatives boycotting the current legislative session. (Claire Withycombe/Oregon Capital Bureau)
SALEM — Democrats in the Oregon House moved Thursday to force Republicans back to the Capitol Thursday, issuing subpoenas to 21 state representatives that would compel them to explain their disappearing act from Salem.
A process server has been hired to track down the missing Republicans and deliver their subpoenas. If they obeyed, the representatives would have to appear before the Democratically-controlled House Rules Committee on Thursday, March 5. Among them is state Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, who represents Malheur County.
“Be prepared to testify about your unexcused absences during the 2020 regular session of the Legislative Assembly, the need for members to fulfill their oaths of office and constitutional duties,” the subpoena states.
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The move showed that House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, is determined to stand against Republican demands that the greenhouse gas legislation be killed or sent to Oregon voters.
The absence of Republicans in both the House and Senate has largely stopped action on legislation this week because there is no quorum.
The House needs at least one more Republican to show up to advance legislation on the floor and the Senate needs two.
“We feel like this is within our legal right to ask our colleagues to come back and explain before a committee why they believe it's OK for them to not do their job,” Kotek told reporters late Thursday.
Kotek said a process server has been hired to chase down wayward Republicans, although they may be out of state.
It’s not clear whether the Republican representatives would be required to obey the subpoenas. In civil court cases, those who defy subpoenas can face sanctions from a state judge.
State Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, that it wasn’t clear to him if lawmakers could face punishment if they don’t comply.
“You know, I'm not an attorney,” said Holvey, with an “aw shucks” grin. “I can't provide legal advice. Or even, you know, speculate on exactly what kind of penalties might be levied. Certainly a subpoena is a legal document. So, you know, people will have to figure that out for themselves.”
The Oregon Constitution, however, states that legislators “shall not be subject to any civil process” during the legislative session. The current one ends March 8.
“There is, I believe, some immunity,” Holvey said. “But I can't tell you how far it goes or where the line is drawn.”
“Maybe we don't have this all perfectly executed,” Kotek said. “We just know this was an option that we should try. And the sooner we started the better because we need to do the work of the people within the constitutional timeline that we have.”
Holvey, whom Kotek describes as the House’s resident rule expert and parliamentarian, approached the speaker Wednesday night about the tactic of employing subpoenas.
“You can’t negotiate with ghosts,” said Holvey. “They need to be here in a transparent setting so we can work together.”
Kotek has demonstrated a willingness to take brisk, punitive measures, taking away the chairmanship of a budget subcommittee from Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, when Republicans skipped an evening floor session last week.
House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, said in a statement late Thursday that the subpoenas were “just the latest example of the majority party’s strong-arm tactics designed to end negotiations.”
“We will not be intimidated,” Drazan said. “We remain resolved to serve the hardworking families of Oregon who have asked for the abuse of power to end and for cap and trade to be referred to the people.”
Her statement didn't address whether legislators would obey subpoenas.
A spokeswoman for Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said he has no plans to issue subpoenas to the 11 Republican senators who have been missing since Monday in an identical protest against climate legislation.
Kotek could ask Gov. Kate Brown to call the Oregon State Police to compel absent Republicans to attend floor sessions, but she said she prefers to keep troopers performing their normal policing duties.
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