Gunn, Hughes argue over ‘demon chipmunk’

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In David-versus-Goliath fashion, a freshman state representative will go before Mississippi’s highest court next month to fight one of the state’s most powerful politicians, the speaker of the house.

Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford

Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, filed suit on March 24 to prevent House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, from using a computer program to read the text of bills at an incomprehensible rate of speed.

Briefs filed from both sides ahead of the July 19 Mississippi Supreme Court hearing shed light on how and what the sides will argue. Hughes claims the “demon chipmunk” automated bill readings, as he calls them in court filings, do not adhere to laws set forth in the Mississippi Constitution. Gunn disagrees, claiming the wording of the constitution does not specify the rate of speed in which bills are read as long as the bills are read.

“This Court has the power and the obligation to hold Speaker Gunn accountable for his blatant violation of the Mississippi Constitution of 1890. He is not above the law,” Hughes wrote in a brief filed this week. “Alternatively, this Court should simply take judicial notice of Speaker Gunn’s actions, find that he is in violation of the Constitution, and forever put to rest the ‘demon chipmunk.’ ”

The battle between Gunn and Hughes dates back to March, during the regular legislative session. Under House rules and the Mississippi Constitution, any member can ask that bills be read aloud. The tactic is often used as a means of slowing action in the House. In recent years, a machine has been used to read the bills aloud in place of the clerk.

Speaker of the Mississippi House Philip Gunn

Gil Ford Photography

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton

During this year’s regular session, several Democrats asked to have bills read as a form of protest against several actions by Gunn, including what they argued were steps shutting them out of the legislative process. In response, Gunn directed House clerks to crank the speed of the automated readings to an incomprehensible rate.

Back in March, there was never a hearing in circuit court. Hinds County Circuit Judge Winston Kidd quickly sided with Hughes’ initial complaint, issuing a temporary restraining order against Gunn and immediately forcing the speaker to slow down the automated readings. But the state’s high court dissolved that order days later without explanation, staying Kidd’s order and allowing Gunn to again increase the speed of the readings.

Besides the constitutionality of the bill reading action, additional questions will be considered by the high court in July. Perhaps the first is whether the Supreme Court has jurisdiction to interfere with legislative procedures. Hughes says it does and cites numerous cases in which the court has given “due deference to the legislative branch, it has never relinquished the ability to hold legislators accountable when they violate the Mississippi Constitution of 1890.”

Gunn and his attorneys disagree, citing other times in which the court has completely left similar questions to the Legislature.

“This Court has recognized that not all disputes arising between citizens are subject to resolution by the judicial power,” Gunn’s attorneys wrote in a brief filed earlier this month. “In particular, the Constitution assigns legislative powers to the Legislature, and this Court has repeatedly refused to interfere with the Legislature’s power to control its internal affairs.”

Hughes’ best potential outcome is that the Supreme Court decides next month to send the case back to Hinds County Circuit Court, where both sides can present their arguments. Gunn’s optimal outcome would be the Supreme Court tossing the case completely.

Attorneys and state officials, including Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, R-Florence, have defended Gunn. Reeves filed an amicus brief earlier this month, urging the court to not involve itself in legislative procedural matters and to dismiss the case.

Hughes, who unsuccessfully ran for House minority leader just days into his legislative tenure, continues to argue that his case is valid and should be further considered by both the Supreme Court and the lower circuit court.

“I’m hopeful they (the Supreme Court) will understand the bill reading machine set at warp speed is contrary to the constitution and, more importantly, the integrity of our state capitol,” Hughes said earlier this month. “The reality is, the people deserve the right to see this and hear it. I think in the court of public opinion, people already understand the atrocity of the actions.”

  • Charles Pearce

    Is it possible for both sides to lose this case? Eliminate the archaic, time-wasting option of reading bills on the floor. Throw out the reading machine and put bills on all devices each member of the Legislature already receives. Let audible software read bills to literate-challenged members off the floor at any speed they wish.

    • Thile

      “Put bills on all devices” when we have a Speaker and Lt. Guv who changed rules to prevent bills from being debated on the house and senate floor. Sure.