Editor’s Notebook: ObamaCare affirmed while legal jousts continue, state House Ethics panel formed

A major appeals court decision from the nation’s capital garnered worldwide attention on Tuesday (November 8), somewhat overshadowing a significant new effort to institutionalize legislative ethics here in Oklahoma. 

Continuing a pattern of internal divisions within appellate courts and sharp disagreements among the federal circuits, the controversial federal health care law was upheld in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. 

In a 37-page opinion, Judge Laurence H. Silberman wrote that while the individual mandate to purchase health insurance may be unprecedented, the absence of similar strictures in the past “seems to us a political judgment rather than a recognition of constitutional limitations.”

A dissenting opinion by Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh argued that federal courts lack jurisdiction until the Affordable Care Act’s provisions take place in 2015. 

Thus far, four circuit courts have considered the constitutionality of “ObamaCare” as the federal law was dubbed by critics in 2010. Two courts have upheld its legality, one upheld the law without fully reaching the legal merits, and one (the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta) said the law’s individual mandate was unconstitutional. That one court clearly striking down the law split 2-1, the same division was for the court upholding the law in the D.C. case. 

Such conflicting precedents lay a plausible basis for the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the matter expeditiously, perhaps in the Court term that just began, or in the term that starts in October 2012.

The Atlanta circuit case is one of several positioned legally in a way that could yield High Court consideration within the next few weeks or months. 

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt reaffirmed his opposition to the law, one of the most dramatic changes in federal law in modern history, and a sweeping transformation of U.S. health care policy that President Barack Obama considers among his most significant accomplishments. 

In a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK, Pruitt said, “Today’s decision on the federal health care law by the D.C. Circuit only reaffirms our commitment to fight the continuous attempts by this administration to hide behind the guise of change to force unnecessary and overreaching federal regulations on American families and businesses.

“We agree with the court that the health care law encroaches on individual liberty, and we believe the law’s individual mandate, requiring all Americans to buy a product from private companies, is unconstitutional.”

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Oklahoma Speaker of the House Kris Steele has announced formation of a standing House Ethics Committee, fulfilling a recommendation made by the Special Investigative Committee.

Steele intended to send “a clear signal that the House of Representatives is serious about maintaining its obligation to preserving public confidence in government.” The aim is to have ethics considered “in a consistent manner under established procedures that are fair to all,” the Shawnee Republican said. 

A total of 39 states, and both the U.S. House and Senate, have legislative ethics bodies in varied forms. A House legislative staff press release on Tuesday (November 8) said, “These committees differ from entities such as the Oklahoma Ethics Commission, which is comprised of appointed commissioners and professional staff who formulate and oversee compliance of ethics rules for campaigns, lobbying and elected officials. Like its counterparts in other states, the House Ethics Committee will be comprised of House members and will focus solely on ethical issues pertaining to legislative business conducted in the House.”

State Rep. Gary Banz, who served on the Investigative Committee, was named chairman of the new committee. Banz said in comments sent to CapitolBeatOK, “Voters have every right to expect their public servants to be honest and display the highest level of integrity. When the ethical behavior of any member is called into question, the House must move decisively to address the issue. Creating a standard by which to judge potential breaches of the public trust simply carries out the mandates of the Oklahoma Constitution and House Rules.”

Jabar Shumate, a Tulsa Democrat, was named vice-chairman. He said, “Unethical behavior is extremely rare, but should questions of ethics arise in the future, we will be fully prepared to address them through established procedures that will evaluate the facts fairly and evenly so appropriate responses can be determined.”

Republican Rep. Fred Jordan of Jenks and Democratic Rep. Ben Sherrer of Choteau, who co-chaired the special investigation, applauded establishment of a permanent Ethics body.

The panel Jordan and Sherrer guided the found alleged bribery maneuvers by state Rep. Randy Terrill “egregiously reprehensible” but took no formal action to discipline the Oklahoma City Republican. 

Last Friday, Terrill was bound over for trial in Oklahoma County on charges he sought to bribe former state Sen. Debbie Leftwich, a Democrat. 

Members for the new committee include four Republicans – Chairman Banz of Midwest City, Dennis Casey of Morrison, Ann Coody of Lawton, and Todd Russ of Cordell – and four Democrats – Vice Chairman Shumate of Tulsa, Danny Morgan of Prague, R.C. Pruett of Antlers and Wade Rousselot of Okay. 

Alternate members are David Brumbaugh of Broken Arrow, a Republican, and Rebecca Hamilton of Oklahoma City, a Democrat. 

Speaker Steele said, “I’ve asked the committee to develop fair rules that facilitate effective oversight while guarding against putting the committee in a position where it could work in ways that are improper or unfairly detrimental to our members and to the House.” 

The panel’s work will be prospective (forward-looking), not retrospective (backward-looking), Steele said. He explained, “I want to be clear that this committee will be looking at only those ethical issues that may arise after it is fully formed. It will not be delving into the past to look at past issues. 

“I’m confident the very existence of this committee will further improve what is already an outstanding legislative body that cares very deeply about good governance.”