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 mmcnutt@opubco.com Modified: June 4, 2013 at 9:11 pm •  Published: June 5, 2013

The measure was the result of months of negotiations between Republican lawmakers, business advocates, doctors, mineral owners and trial lawyers. The deal was announced about two weeks before the 2009 session ended. Talks had been ongoing since 2007 when then-Gov. Brad Henry vetoed a similar measure.

HB 1603 contains 90 sections. Gurich wrote they encompass a variety of subjects “that do not reflect a common, closely akin theme or purpose.” The first 24 sections amend and create new laws with civil procedure code and the remaining 66 sections create entirely new acts that have nothing in common with each other, she wrote. It also creates a new law prohibiting a school district representative from presiding at a due-process hearing and then advising the school board.

“This court finds the Legislature's use of the broad topic of lawsuit reform does not cure the bill's single-subject defects,” Gurich wrote. “We find the provisions are so unrelated that those voting on the law were faced with an all-or-nothing choice to ensure the passage of favorable legislation.”

Mixed reactions

Coffee, a Republican from Oklahoma City, said the court's ruling makes it difficult for lawmakers to tackle complex legislation. “Based on their interpretation, you'd have to pass at least 90 separate bills,” he said.

The Supreme Court in its ruling is “creating huge obstacles for the passage of legislation,” Coffee said. “They're setting themselves out as a super Legislature.”

Justices James Winchester and Steven Taylor dissented in the ruling, with Winchester writing HB 1603 did not violate the single-subject rule.

“I believe it more likely that the Legislature and the public understood the common themes and purposes embodied in the legislation; it was tort reform,” Winchester wrote.

The measure passed easily, winning bipartisan support in the GOP-controlled Legislature. The House of Representatives passed it 86-13, and it passed 42-5 in the Senate before Henry, a Democrat, signed it.

“This bill appears to have had overwhelming support of two branches of government,” Winchester wrote.

“Court opinions containing an overly restrictive interpretation of the single-subject rule will likely have a chilling effect on the legislative process,” Winchester wrote. “The result will be an exponential number of bills filed along with an expanded legislative process but with no greater assurance the legislation will pass the single-subject test.”

He wrote that HB 1603 had a severability clause, allowing justices to specifically throw out certain parts of the measure found to be unconstitutional.

Gurich wrote that it would be “both dangerous and difficult” for the justices to consider separating parts of the measure.

“By picking and choosing which provisions relate to lawsuit reform and which do not, this court would essentially become the policymaker,” she wrote. “Policy-making is the job of the Legislature.”