Patrick B. McGuigan
A bipartisan group of six state Senators today (Tuesday, April 5) objected to yesterday’s passage of House Bill 2128, the capstone piece of Governor Mary Fallin’s lawsuit reform agenda.
The measure’s “hard cap” on non-economic damages in tort cases was strongly assailed in today’s press conference.
The group attending consisted of Republican state Sens. Steve Russell of Oklahoma City and Harry Coates of Seminole, and Democratic Sens. Charlie Laster of Shawnee, Tom Ivester of Oklahoma City, Judy Eason-McIntyre of Tulsa and Charles Wyrick of Fairland.
The first four listed above spoke at a state Capitol press conference during noon hour today. Governor Mary Fallin is expected to sign two lawsuit reform measures at 3 p.m. this afternoon. She is awaiting final action to slot H.B. 2128 for her signature at a later date, her press spokesman told CapitolBeatOK.
Sen. Russell predicted the bill “will not survive constitutional scrutiny.” He said the legislation was an example of “putting money and business interests above the rights of citizens under the Constitution.” He said the bill reflected “a twisted set of morals.”
At one point, Russell predicted “Courts will throw it out, it’s just a matter of days before the courts act.” Russell missed yesterday’s vote, and told reporters Senate leadership had not given senators warning the bill would be on the Monday agenda.
Senator Coates reflected, “I feel the votes were there before the bill was brought to the floor.” However, he said that beyond the actual provisions of the bill, he was disappointed it “was advanced without any amendments being heard. That was unfair.”
The latter pointed was echoed frequently in today’s gathering. Sen. Laster told reporters, “My concern started some nine weeks ago. In my nine years, I’ve never seen a situation where a committee chairman would not allow any amendments to be heard.”
Laster noted, “It was assigned the leadership to the Rules Committee, and proposed amendments were not heard. Members were invited to bring their amendments up on the floor, but then the amendments were not heard on the floor.”
Sen. Ivester said, “This bill was placed on the agenda without 24 hours notice.” That concerned him, he continued, because, “This is a major piece of legislation with major constitutional flaws.”
Asked if he agreed Senate rules were violated in yesterday’s proceedings, Russell replied, “I don’t know that any rules were violated, but common courtesy was certainly violated. They said there would be time to hear amendments on the floor, but then didn’t follow through on that.”
Sen. Russell seemed to speak for the group of six senators when he asserted, “We were not afforded the opportunity to make it constitutional or address concerns.”
When a reporter asked if any of the members were aware of actual plans to file a lawsuit challenging the measure, if it is signed by the chief executive, Sen. Russell said he was not sure of that, but continued, “I took a oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution and the state constitution. I think it’s only a matter of time before the bill is challenged.”
He said, “I would hope the governor will turn to her legal counsel and ask for analysis of this bill.” He continued, “I am continually amazed at the greed and avarice of human beings.”
One reporter asked if it was unusual to have such a group of senators challenge the process of enactment for a law. Russell answered, “I would hope that we would step forward in such circumstances.”
Sen. Laster said he expected to see the issue again in the future. He said “tort reform” is “if not the biggest, it’s certainly among the biggest sources of money on both sides. I’ve been here nine years and this comes up each and every year. Two years ago, the Republican leadership passed a bill and declared victory, saying it was the culmination of years of work. I’d be willing to bet a free tennis lesson that it will be back in 2013 and 2015.”
Yesterday, H.B. 2128 cleared the state Senate 30-14. The measure had the support of 29 Republicans and one Democrat, state Sen. Susan Paddack of Ada. Opposing the bill were 13 Democrats and one Republican, state Sen. Coates.
Two Democrats (Roger Ballenger of Okmulgee and Sean Burrage of Claremore) did not vote; two Republicans (Rick Brinkley of Rogers County and Russell) also did not vote. All four were listed as “excused” from the roll call yesterday afternoon.