The Supreme Court of Oregon on Thursday ruled that 10 Republican and Independent state senators cannot run for reelection this year. Their transgression? Not showing up for work.
Since 2019, Republicans, Oregon’s minority party, have been staging walkouts to prevent the majority party from passing progressive measures, like a proposal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and to protest Covid restrictions. The AWOL senators were facing fines of $500 for every day of missed work, but that didn’t stop them: During the 2019 walkouts, some senators even went into hiding or fled the state. Then-Goc. Kate Brown (D) admonished them. “Public servants are chosen by and entrusted to represent their constituents, and working for the people of Oregon is an honor and a privilege,” she said. “Playing games and avoiding tough conversations is a dereliction of that responsibility and trust.”
Conservatives’ unusual strategy works in Oregon because it is one of the few states that require at least two-thirds of its 30-member Senate to be present to conduct legislative business. The legislature tilts blue but consistently has more than a third of Republican and Independent senators.
In 2022, voters amended the Oregon Constitution to have more stringent attendance rules for state legislators—no more than 10 absences—or else they would be banned from holding state office for the next term. Hannah Love, a campaign strategist for the ballot measure, explained to Oregon Public Broadcasting that “Oregonians…do not want to let the gridlock of the extreme partisan walkouts hold our democracy back any longer. They know that as regular people, we can’t walk off the job with zero consequences or accountability. And we’re sick of politicians who think they can play by a separate set of rules.” The measure passed with 68.3 percent of the vote, but there were sharp detractors. “What they’re trying to do is use extortion to prohibit freedom of speech,” said John Large, chair of the Lane County Republicans.
Despite the new attendance rules, 10 lawmakers still boycotted the senate in 2023 over a bill to expand gender affirming care and access to abortion. Their main point of protest was language allowing minors under the age of 15 to receive an abortion without parental consent or notification. “That, to us, is the issue,” said Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp (R-Bend). They walked out of work for six weeks. The bill ultimately passed, but the final language required parental notification for minors under the age of 15 getting abortions. Both parties celebrated the passage as a win.
“We thought it was a principle worth defending, even if it meant that we couldn’t run for reelection,” Knopp said.
Yet when faced with the prospect of losing their jobs, five senators contested the ballot measure, arguing that they should be allowed to serve one more term before being banned due to the ambiguous language of the measure. “It’s poorly drafted and it’s certainly ambiguous,” Steve Kanter, an emeritus professor of constitutional law at Lewis & Clark Law School told Oregon outlet Willamette Week.
The Oregon Secretary of State LaVonne Griffin-Valade, who oversees state elections, conceded that the language of the ballot measure was ambiguous, but maintained that the intent of the voters was clear, stating: “It is clear voters intended Measure 113 to disqualify legislators from running for reelection.” On Thursday, the Oregon Supreme Court agreed with Griffin-Valade.
The affected senators are displeased. “The only winners in this case are Democrat politicians and their union backers,” wrote Sen. Suzanne Weber (R-Tillamook) in a statement today. “We obviously disagree with the Supreme Court’s ruling. But more importantly, we are deeply disturbed by the chilling impact this decision will have to crush dissent,” Knopp told the Associated Press.
With this ruling, combined with retirements, six key seats previously held by Republicans and an Independent in the Oregon senate are up for grabs.