Court hears arguments in ‘demon-chipmunk’ case

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Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, answers questions from reporters after arguments in the demon-chipmunk case over Speaker Philip Gunn's use of a bill-reading machine.

Mississippi Today

Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, answers questions from reporters after court arguments Tuesday. 

The fate of the use of a high-speed bill reading machine, and possibly other legislative procedures, rests in the hands of the Mississippi Supreme Court.

Tuesday, the nine-member court heard arguments from attorneys for lawmakers who have been at odds over the bill-reading machine since the 2016 legislative session.

In March, Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, sued Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, to prevent the use of a computer program to read bills at an incomprehensible rate of speed. Hughes said the resulting sound was that of a “demon chipmunk” and violated requirements in the state Constitution.

The 1890 Mississippi Constitution contains a provision for bills to be read when a request is made by members of the Legislature. The requirement was put in place so that illiterate lawmakers could understand what they were voting on.

In the modern era, the rule has been used primarily as a way for members of the minority to slow down legislative procedures, short of using a filibuster completely tying up floor action.

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. To keep the House on schedule, Gunn directed House clerks to crank the speed of the automated readings to the virtually incomprehensible rate of a seasoned auctioneer.

Hughes went to court and was given a temporary restraining order, requiring Gunn to slow the speed of the machine. However, without giving any reason, the Supreme Court blocked that order a few days later.

Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, discusses the 2016 legislative session.

Mississippi Today

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton

On Tuesday, Gunn’s attorney, Mike Wallace, argued that the Mississippi Supreme Court lacks jurisdiction over the internal affairs of the Legislature, a branch of government with equal power to the supreme court under the state Constitution.

But Ray Hill, Hughes’ lawyer, argued that the court could weigh in because reading bills too fast to be understood violates Hughes’ individual rights as a legislator.

Justice Leslie King, the only African American member of the court, pressed Gunn’s lawyer on whether the Supreme Court would have any say if the Legislature instituted an internal rule that is racially discriminatory. Wallace said while a race-based policy would be “despicable,” the Mississippi Constitution doesn’t address King’s hypothetical scenario.

Justice Dawn Beam asked Hughes’ attorney why the Supreme Court should micromanage the Legislature, and said that meddling in legislative affairs could be a slippery slope for the court.

Justice Michael Randolph advised, with several lawmakers attending the hearing, that the Legislature consider clarifying the constitution to avoid future conflicts such as this one.

After the hearing, Hughes told reporters that he would like the court to require Gunn to have bills read at a reasonable speed.

Hughes also said he would like the court to remand the case to a lower court so that a record could be created, including exhibits. Because the original judge sided with Hughes without a hearing, there is no court record to help the Supreme Court resolve the issues at stake.

The court will issue its ruling at a later date.