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Oklahoma lawsuit reform measure tossed out

Oklahoma Supreme Court rules Comprehensive Lawsuit Reform Act of 2009 violates the state constitution's single-subject rule.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT Modified: June 4, 2013 at 9:11 pm •  Published: June 5, 2013

Lawmakers likely will be asked next year to pass several bills to restore key elements of a comprehensive lawsuit measure that has been tossed out by the Oklahoma Supreme Court, a legislative leader said Tuesday.

The state's high court in a 7-2 ruling Tuesday stated the measure, called the Comprehensive Lawsuit Reform Act of 2009, was unconstitutional because it violated the single-subject rule of the state constitution by logrolling several subjects into one.

“This bill is unconstitutional and void in its entirety,” the order written by Justice Noma Gurich reads.

Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, said the court's decision on House Bill 1603 is being reviewed. Some provisions of the measure, such as a cap on pain and suffering, were changed in legislation passed in 2011 and will remain in effect.

“If there's something in there that we didn't cover in '11, then you'll probably see that in individual legislation,” he said. “It gives us something else to do this next session.”

A spokesman for Gov. Mary Fallin said the ruling is a setback for businesses and employees.

“The governor will work with the Legislature in the interim to evaluate the state's options,” said Alex Weintz, Fallin's communications director.

Former Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, who was the Senate sponsor of HB 1603, said the measure put “a spotlight on Oklahoma as a more pro-business, business-friendly state, and now the court has given it a black eye.”

The State Chamber, which supported HB 1603, called the ruling disappointing.

The justices have chosen “to legislate from the bench instead of exercising judicial restraint,” said Fred Morgan, the chamber's president and CEO.

What is logrolling?

Gurich in the order defined logrolling as the practice of ensuring the passage of a law by creating one choice in which a legislator or voter is forced to assent to an unfavorable provision to secure passage of a favorable one.

“This court has long rejected a broad, expansive approach to the single-subject rule,” Gurich wrote. “We will not sit by and ignore violations of our constitution.”

The ruling means lawyers filing a personal injury or medical malpractice lawsuit likely will have to do some research, said former Sen. Charlie Laster, of Shawnee, a critic of the measure who eventually voted for it.

“I'd hate to have to figure out what law applied right now,” said Laster, a Democrat who was Senate minority leader while HB 1603 was debated. “It's kind of a mishmash.”

Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, who voted against the measure, said he wasn't surprised by the high court's decision.

“That was one of our main arguments, that it was logrolling and that it was a violation of the constitution,” Morrissette said. “As state elected officials, we have a duty to follow the constitution. … This is the result when policymakers refuse to adhere to constitutional law.”

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