The Oklahoma Legislature began a special session on lawsuit reform Tuesday, acting quickly to streamline proceedings that are costing taxpayers $30,000 a day.
Republicans introduced new rules placing limits on amendments and floor discussions. They quickly beat back Democratic attempts to expand the focus beyond resurrecting civil justice changes thrown out in June by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Those changes, backed by business interests, are intended to limit frivolous lawsuits.
“I think this is one of the most important issues facing the state of Oklahoma,” Gov. Mary Fallin said Tuesday. “Prior to 2009 when the Legislature took up lawsuit reform with Gov. Brad Henry, and also with Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate, they passed a bipartisan piece of legislation that I still believe was very helpful to our state.”
The court struck down the law on the basis that it violated an Oklahoma constitutional requirement that bills deal only with a single subject. This week, legislators will be breaking down the various elements of that law into single-subject chunks.
The court also found that a provision of the law requiring a patient who is filing a medical malpractice lawsuit to obtain a certificate of merit was unconstitutional because it created a barrier to the courts for citizens. The certificate would require a third-party expert to find a case has merit before the lawsuit can proceed. The person filing the lawsuit would have to pay the expert.
A bill was filed in the Senate in an attempt to re-create the provision, and Fallin said Tuesday afternoon she was hopeful it could be written in a way that would stand up to constitutional scrutiny.
Democratic lawmakers, along with a handful of Republicans, have taken issue with the governor's position that lawsuit reform is a pressing enough matter to warrant a special session, which is likely to last several days at a cost of $30,000 a day. They argue that not only should the issue be addressed during the regular session, which begins next February, but that the scope of the session should be expanded.
By law the special session cannot focus on any subject not specified in the governor's call to order. Fallin requested the special session specifically to deal with tort reform.
Tuesday, House Democrats attempted a number of times to allow additional issues to be discussed, including Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper pay, Department of Corrections funding, and school safety and storm shelters. Each attempt was quickly voted down by a wide margin.
Shortly before Tuesday's session ended, Minority Leader Rep. Scott Inman, D-Oklahoma City, attempted to force a vote to immediately end the special session. Inman was denied the opportunity to make the motion by Republican House leaders.
“They are so determined to get their special interest, special legislation passed that they're going to do all they can to close the process, to not allow any voices of dissent to be engaged in this process,” Inman said during a news conference after Tuesday's session. “That includes even members of their own party.”
Inman was referring to a House resolution filed Tuesday afternoon proposing new rules for the special session. If adopted, the resolution would limit the total question-and-answer time for the entire special session to three hours. The resolution also would put a limit on procedural maneuvers and would set an earlier deadline for amendments.
“They want us to take up tort reform, which took months and months of negotiations, discussions and settlements. They want us to address it all in less than three hours,” Inman said. “That's disgusting.”
The Senate adopted a similar resolution by unanimous consent Tuesday limiting the amount of time amendments on bills can be filed.
The vast majority of the new tort reform legislation has been copied directly from the 2009 measure the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down. By breaking the original law down into multiple measures the Legislature is attempting to reintroduce the legislation and avoid violating the single-subject restriction.
House floor leader Rep. Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa, said since the language is not new it makes sense, both economically and pragmatically, to move the session along at a faster pace.
“I think we've had this language out there, it's not new language,” Peterson said.
“There's plenty of time to debate and make their points and ask their questions. You know, there's a limited amount of time that we have to get the job done, and we need to do it in the most efficient and fair way, and I think this resolution gets us there.”