Oregon court bars walkout senators from re-election bids

Voters approved a ballot measure in 2022 make any legislator with more than 10 unexcused absences ineligible to seek a new term.
Oregon Senate Republican Leader Sen. Tim Knopp looks to Democratic Senate President Rob Wagner as he speaks during a news conference as part of a 2024 legislative preview at the State Library on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, in Salem, Ore. The Oregon Supreme Court said Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024, that 10 Republican state senators who staged a record-long walkout last year to stall bills on abortion, transgender health care and gun rights cannot run for reelection. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane)

The Oregon Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that 10 state senators who staged a walkout during last year’s legislative session are ineligible to seek re-election this year following a voter-approved referendum aimed at ending delay tactics.

In a unanimous decision, the court rejected arguments brought by five of those senators who wanted to seek re-election. The court upheld Secretary of State LaVonne Griffin-Valade’s decision to leave them off the ballot.

The challenge arose after 10 senators — nine Republicans and one independent — ground the Senate to a halt last year, in protest of gun control and abortion rights legislation the Democratic majority was debating. Those senators walked out, denying the Senate a quorum for six weeks.

Griffin-Valade ruled in August that those senators would be ineligible to run for re-election under Measure 113, a ballot measure voters approved in 2022 that would make any legislator who racked up more than 10 unexcused absences ineligible to seek a new term.

Voters backed that measure after Republicans staged previous walkouts to block Democratic majorities.

The Republicans who brought the lawsuit said the language of Measure 113 was ambiguous, and that a technical reading of the law should mean they would be ineligible to run for re-election after their current terms expired — two months after the 2024 elections.

“We obviously disagree with the Supreme Court’s ruling. But more importantly, we are deeply disturbed by the chilling impact this decision will have to crush dissent,” Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp (R), one of those ruled ineligible to run, said in a statement.

The state Supreme Court ruled that voters reading the ballot title “would have understood the disqualification to apply to the term of office immediately following the term in which a legislator accrued 10 or more unexcused absences,” the court said in a release announcing its decision.

“It was clear to me that voters intended for legislators with a certain number of absences in a legislative session to be immediately disqualified from seeking re-election,” Griffin-Valade said in a statement after the court ruled.

Sen. Daniel Bonham (R), another senator who will be disqualified from the ballot, castigated the court for focusing on voter intent rather than the language of the law.

“There is no justice in a political court,” Bonham said.

Democrats hold 17 seats in the 30-member state Senate. The legislature’s rules require a two-thirds majority to reach a quorum, meaning at least three non-Democrats would have to show up to allow the body to function.

Two of the 10 senators disqualified from seeking new terms had already announced their retirement. Four senators — including Knopp, Dennis Linthicum (R), Art Robinson (R) and Brian Boquist (I) — will not be allowed to run in 2024. Four more Republicans won’t be eligible for new terms in 2026.