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Oregon secretary of state: Senators who walked out can’t run next year

A woman with long light brown hair wearing a red shirt and black blazer. She is wearing black glasses and has dangly earrings on.
Oregon Governor's Office
Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek appointed LaVonne Griffin-Valade, above, as the new secretary of state, replacing Shemia Fagan.

Lawmakers have been waiting for weeks to learn how new Secretary of State LaVonne Griffin-Valade will enforce a new law enacted by voters last year.

Republican senators who walked away from this year’s legislative session will be barred from running for reelection next year, Secretary of State LaVonne Griffin-Valade announced Tuesday.

The conclusion, announced after months of speculation, might not be a surprise to voters who overwhelmingly voted last year to create consequences for legislative walkouts via Measure 113.

But the decision drew an immediate promise of a court challenge from GOP lawmakers, who have said the measure was so sloppily worded that they are technically allowed to serve another term before consequences for a walkout begin. Ten conservative lawmakers ran afoul of Measure 113 this year, and six are up for reelection in 2024. The majority of those have said they plan to run.

“We believe the plain language of Measure 113 allows for members to run again in 2024 elections,” Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, one of the 10 senators who walked, said in a statement. “We disagree with the Secretary of State’s determination and will challenge it in court.”

Measure 113 sought to curtail legislative walkouts that have become increasingly common by imposing serious penalties for any lawmakers who accrue 10 or more unexcused absences in a single legislative session. As the measure was sold to voters, any such politician would be banned from running for reelection, or seeking election in the other chamber, once their current term expires.

No organized group opposed the measure, and it sailed through with more than 68% of the vote. But Republicans now say that it received so little scrutiny that a fatal flaw slipped past voters and government attorneys alike.

Under language the measure inserted into the state constitution, any lawmakers with at least 10 unexcused absences cannot hold office “for the term following the election after the member’s current term is completed.”

Since elections in Oregon are held before a lawmakers term is completed — not after — Republicans say the constitution allows them to serve another term before penalties take effect.

Democrats, including the attorney who drafted the measure, have argued that the wording matters less than what voters intended when passing the new law. They point to an explanatory statement, crafted by the Oregon Department of Justice, that explicitly told voters that a “yes” vote would ensure truant lawmakers can’t hold their seat for “the term following the end of the legislator’s current term.”

Griffin-Valade appears to agree. Citing advice from the state DOJ, she’s directed her elections officials to implement an administrative ruleclarifying how Measure 113 works in a manual for candidates.

“It is clear voters intended Measure 113 to disqualify legislators from running for reelection if they had 10 or more unexcused absences in a legislative session,” Griffin-Valade said in a statement. “My decision honors the voters’ intent by enforcing the measure the way it was commonly understood when Oregonians added it to our state constitution.”

While a statement from the secretary acknowledges there is a dispute over wording, she says courts have found that “the text of adopted ballot measures must be interpreted in a way that is consistent with the voters’ intent.”

Advice from DOJ attorneysto the secretary determined the wording being disputed by Republicans was included in the ballot measure to clarify that lawmakers who accrue more than 10 unexcused absences “may complete their current term, even though the election occurs before it is over.”

“We found no suggestion prior to enactment that the Measure was understood or intended to allow absent legislators to serve an additional term,” the DOJ said.

Griffin-Valade’s conclusion will be tested quickly. Portland attorney John DiLorenzo, who is representing conservative lawmakers who launched the longest walkout in Oregon history this year, says his clients are planning to challenge the new ruling immediately.

Since Griffin-Valade has issued an administrative rule, DiLorenzo says, his clients can file a rule challenge in the Oregon Court of Appeals, skipping potentially lengthy proceedings at the lower circuit court level.

Republican senators recently received an opinion from elections officials that they say allows them to raise money for a court challenge via a political action committee established earlier this year, meaning they can access deep-pocketed supporters for unlimited financial support for their legal fight. The lawmakers initially believed the challenge would have to be crowdfunded -- a far less efficient means of raising money.

Republicans have suggested that they believe the penalties in Measure 113 could be ripe for a challenge on First Amendment grounds. But the fight over whether the law is ultimately constitutional will wait for another day, DiLorenzo said.

“Our most likely course is first to determine what Measure 113 means” by seeking clarity from the courts, he said.

One person who agrees with Griffin-Valade: Gov. Tina Kotek, who wrangled with a Republican walkout as House speaker in 2020.

“I think it’s clear what the voters intended: when people don’t show up for work that they will be held accountable,” Kotek said Tuesday, adding: “Ultimately I think this will be decided by the court.”

OPB reporter Lauren Dake contributed to this report.

This article was originally written by Dirk VanderHart of OPB.

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