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Republican senators sue Oregon secretary of state, saying walkout doesn’t block them from seeking reelection

MOLDPRES
Sens. Dennis Linthicum, R-Beatty, and Tim Knopp, R-Bend, are among five senators suing Secretary of State LaVonne Griffin-Valade.

Sens. Dennis Linthicum, R-Beatty, and Tim Knopp, R-Bend, are among five senators suing Secretary of State LaVonne Griffin-Valade.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Republican state senators who walked away from this year’s Oregon legislative session to block votes on abortion rights and gun safety say they should be allowed to run for reelection next year, regardless of a voter-approved law aimed at ending their legislative careers.

Now they’re suing for that right.

In a case with weighty implications for the legislative process in Salem, five Republican senators filed suit Friday against Oregon Secretary of State LaVonne Griffin-Valade. They are Sens. Tim Knopp, Daniel Bonham, Suzanne Weber, Lynn Findley and Dennis Linthicum.

The Republican lawmakers are hoping to convince the Oregon Court of Appeals that voters were misled last November when they passed Measure 113, a law designed to end walkouts that Republicans have used repeatedly in recent years to halt business at the Capitol.

Under Measure 113, any lawmaker who accrues 10 or more unexcused absences during a legislative session is blocked from seeking reelection. The question posed by the lawsuit is when.

In explanatory statements, news stories and other documents, the intent of Measure 113 was clear: Lawmakers would be barred immediately from running again.

But the five senators say the actual verbiage inserted into the state Constitution didn’t accomplish that aim. That language says a lawmaker who runs afoul of Measure 113 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 — elections occur in November, whereas legislative terms don’t end until the following January — Republicans say the constitution allows them to serve another term before penalties take effect.

“Petitioners believe that the plain text of the Constitutional Amendment, and only interpretation consistent therewith, is that any disqualification must apply to the ‘term following the election after the member’s current term is complete,’” the filing says. That would mean that Knopp, Findley and Linthicum, whose terms expire next year, would be able to file for reelection this year. Bonham and Weber’s terms don’t end until 2026.

Griffin-Valade feels differently. On advice from the Oregon Department of Justice, she issued an administrative rule earlier this month that blocks lawmakers who walked out from running again. In doing so, the secretary aligned with many Democrats’ view of the matter: that voters’ intention in passing Measure 113 takes precedence over the ambiguous wording. “My decision honors the voters’ intent by enforcing the measure the way it was commonly understood when Oregonians added it to our state constitution,” Griffin-Valade said when announcing the rule.

Since the Republican lawmakers are appealing Griffin-Valade’s rule in their lawsuit, they were able to file a case directly before the Oregon Court of Appeals, rather than first filing in a lower court. Their attorney, John DiLorenzo, said Friday that attorneys for the state have agreed the case should be expedited — potentially directly to the Oregon Supreme Court.

In all, 10 conservative state senators accrued enough unexcused absences to run afoul of Measure 113 when they launched a six-week walkout to block bills on abortion and guns earlier this year. The boycott created a potential crisis in Salem, raising doubts that the Legislature would be able to pass a new budget. In the end, Republicans and Democrats struck a deal in which Republicans returned to the building in exchange for Democrats scrapping key pieces of controversial bills.

Republican lawmakers are paying handsomely for the legal challenge. A political action committee set up to fund the effort is currently listed in state filings as nearly $60,000 in the hole, after a sizeable legal bill from DiLorenzo’s firm.

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