Monday, June 17, 2013

Tort Reform Ruling was Wrong!

Weekly Opinion Editorial
by Steve Fair

The Oklahoma State Constitution requires that legislative bills deal with only a single subject (other than the general appropriations bill to fund state government).  That is to prevent state lawmakers from throwing a completely unrelated issue on a bill and getting it passed by coercing their fellow lawmakers to support it in exchange for their vote on a bill important to the other legislator.

Last week, the Oklahoma Supreme Court voted 7-2 that the sweeping tort reform laws passed in the 2009 legislative session and authored by Senator Anthony Sykes, R- Moore, were unconstitutional because they violated the ‘single subject’ rule in the Constitution.  The high court did not say the policy was bad, but that the legislature needed to make sure they only dealt with a single subject. 
In the dissenting opinion, Supreme Court Justice James Winchester said, “The majority opinion gives little guidance to the Legislature regarding why the law found in HB 1603 is unconstitutional.”  Winchester cited a 1922 state Supreme Court ruling which declared the term “subject” to be given a broad and extended meaning so legislators could include in one act all matters having a logical or natural connection.  The apparent contradiction doesn't provide a tidy template or clear direction for lawmakers to use when drafting legislation.

Four observations about the court’s ruling:

First, the spirit of the state constitution’s single subject provision wasn’t violated in the tort reform legislation.  There was no ‘logrolling’ or slipping of unrelated issues into the tort reform bill.  The bill dealt with multiple aspects of ‘tort reform.’  It appears now the legislation will have to pass twenty five (25) different bills to satisfy the Supreme Court.  That was not the intent of the writers of the constitution’s single subject rule.

Second, the high court’s ruling will give the powerful trial lobby a do-over in Oklahoma.  It has taken years for Oklahoma to pass meaningful tort reform.  The trial lobby, which primarily backs Democrat candidates, spent big money fighting it originally and you can bet they will now spend a bunch fighting it in the upcoming session.  With new legislators coming into the body, the trial lobby will work to convince them to not support the original bill.

Third, throwing out tort reform sends a negative message of Oklahoma to prospective business.  After the legislation passes good legislation and the Supreme Court strikes it down, it sends the message to business we are a state is not to be trusted.  It has taken years for Oklahoma to overcome the negative image we earned after reneging on General Motors back in 1979 on an agreement to exempt their plant from ad valorem taxes, but then declared it unconstitutional and made them pony up millions.    

Fourth, Oklahoma’s Supreme Court is legislating from the bench.  Of the nine members of the Supreme Court, eight were appointed by Democrat Governors.  They did not support meaningful tort reform and they misapplied the intent of the writers of the constitution to prevent its implementation.  Currently Justices of the Supreme Court are appointed and then face voters on a retention ballot ever four years.  Since Oklahoma went to a retention ballot, we have never removed a judge from office. Never!  It’s time for term limits on judges.

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