SALEM, Ore. (AP) — The Oregon Supreme Court said Thursday that 10 Republican state senators who staged a record-long walkout last year to stall bills on abortion, transgender health care and gun rights cannot run for reelection.
The decision upholds the secretary of state’s decision to disqualify the senators from the ballot under a voter-approved measure aimed at stopping such boycotts. Measure 113, passed by voters in 2022, amended the state constitution to bar lawmakers from reelection if they have more than 10 unexcused absences.
Last year’s boycott lasted six weeks — the longest in state history — and paralyzed the legislative session, stalling hundreds of bills.
Five lawmakers sued over the secretary of state’s decision — Sens. Tim Knopp, Daniel Bonham, Suzanne Weber, Dennis Linthicum and Lynn Findley. They were among the 10 GOP senators who racked up more than 10 absences.
“We obviously disagree with the Supreme Court’s ruling," said Knopp, the Senate minority leader. "But more importantly, we are deeply disturbed by the chilling impact this decision will have to crush dissent.”
Democratic Senate President Rob Wagner welcomed the decision.
“Today’s ruling by the Oregon Supreme Court means that legislators and the public now know how Measure 113 will be applied, and that is good for our state," he said in a statement.
Political advocacy groups that backed Measure 113 had similar reactions.
“Walkouts allow a relatively small number of lawmakers to nullify the will of the majority, and that is to the detriment of our democracy,” Alejandro Queral, executive director of the Oregon Center for Public Policy, said in an emailed statement.
During oral arguments before the Oregon Supreme Court in December, attorneys for the senators and the state wrestled over the grammar and syntax of the language that was added to the state constitution after Measure 113 was approved by voters.
The amendment says a lawmaker is not allowed to run “for the term following the election after the member’s current term is completed.”
The debate was over when that ineligibility kicks in: If a senator's term ends in January 2025, they would typically seek reelection in November 2024. The “election after the member's current term is completed” would not be until November 2028, the Republican senators argued, so they could run for reelection this year and then hold office for another term before becoming ineligible.
The court disagreed, saying that while the language of the amendment was ambiguous, the information provided to voters in the ballot title and explanatory statement made clear that the intent was to bar truant lawmakers from holding office in the next term.
“Those other materials expressly and uniformly informed voters that the amendment would apply to a legislator’s immediate next terms of office, indicating that the voters so understood and intended that meaning,” the justices wrote.
The senators’ lawsuit was filed against Secretary of State LaVonne Griffin-Valade, who last August said the boycotting senators were disqualified from seeking reelection. She directed her office’s elections division to implement an administrative rule based on her stance.
All parties in the suit had sought clarity on the issue before the March 2024 filing deadline for candidates who want to run in this year’s election.
Knopp, the Senate minority leader, said he didn't plan to appeal the decision or join a separate federal lawsuit filed by three Republican senators challenging their disqualification from the ballot. A federal judge in December ruled against the three lawmakers, and they have appealed the decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
He conceded that the “significant turnover” of Republican senators would be challenging but said he wasn't concerned. And despite being barred from seeking reelection, he said he wouldn't advise Republicans against lengthy walkouts in the future.
“I think legislators need to stand on the principles that they believe in, and if you believe in it enough to make the sacrifice, then you most certainly should,” he told reporters Thursday.
Knopp added that he wasn’t sure what he’ll do next after the 2024 term ends.
“Who knows if this is a pause in public service for me and the others, or if it’s the end of a road and a new beginning for something else,” he said.
The 2023 walkout paralyzed the Legislature for weeks and only ended after Republicans forced concessions from Democrats on a sweeping bill related to expanding access to abortion and transgender health care and another measure regarding the manufacture and transfer of undetectable firearms, known as ghost guns.
Oregon voters approved Measure 113 by a wide margin following Republican walkouts in the Legislature in 2019, 2020 and 2021.