Legal challenges to Oklahoma laws appear to be on the increase, with the blame being cast on politics getting mixed in with policy, lawmakers trying to cram too many items in comprehensive measures or on so-called activist judges.
So far this month, the Oklahoma Supreme Court tossed out a 2009 comprehensive measure dealing with changes to how lawsuits are handled and a legal challenge was filed to a bill passed and signed into law this year that would reduce the top rate of the state's personal income tax as well as provide funds to repair the state Capitol. Also, a federal appellate court said Oklahoma's American Indian “rain god” license plate can be challenged on grounds that amounts to a state endorsement of a religion.
“There are certain things that a Legislature undertakes that no matter what they do, there's going to be a lawsuit,” said state Attorney General Scott Pruitt, whose office is involved in defending most of the litigation challenging Oklahoma laws.
A favorite target in recent years has been anti-abortion measures, which have become more common the past several years as Republicans increase their ranks to eventually capture the majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
“You've got organizations that exist, that are created, they live day to day for one purpose — to go out and sue any state that passes a pro-life statute,” said Pruitt, a Republican. “You can't from a legislative or a policy perspective say, ‘Well, then we're going to shrink from our responsibility.'
“And our Legislature has not shrunk from their responsibility, God bless them,” he said. “So when they pass those statutes, we're going to defend them vigorously.
“There are certain kinds of statutes that are passed that irrespective of how sound they are constitutionally, how much time is put into drafting those consistent with court opinions …. you're just going to have lawsuits,” Pruitt said.
But Rep. Doug Cox, R-Grove, cautioned House members this year that they are pushing too far when it comes to anti-abortion measures. The bill, which since was signed into law, places a requirement that women under the age of 17 must obtain a prescription for the “morning after” emergency contraceptive. It was in response to a recent recommendation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that the contraceptive be made available to women 15 years of age and older without a prescription.
Cox, an emergency room physician, said the FDA recommendation is an attempt to reduce the number of abortions being given to women under the age of 17. He said he expected the Oklahoma measure to draw a legal challenge because it discriminates against women and because federal rules take precedence over state law.
Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, said he and other Democratic House members warned House Republicans that the income tax-cut law passed this year violated the single-subject rule.
He said lawmakers, especially Republicans, are trying to appease the vocal ultra conservative members of their party.
“With term limits, people are not secure in their own confidence as being re-electable because they're unsure of themselves in their own districts,” said Morrissette, who was elected in 2004..
“They're afraid of the extreme right-wingers that might take them on in the primary,” Morrissette. “They're not concerned with so much about passing constitutional policy laws. They're concerned about their own survivability with a mindset that they believe is ultra conservative. I'm convinced that's part of it.”