Gunn triumphs in ‘demon chipmunk’ case

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Rogelio V. Solis, AP

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton

After months of deliberation, the Mississippi Supreme Court on Thursday tossed the lawsuit filed against House Speaker Philip Gunn regarding how bills are read on the House floor.

Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, filed suit on March 24, 2016, to prevent Gunn from using a computer program to read the text of bills at an incomprehensible rate of speed.

Hughes claimed the “demon chipmunk” automated bill readings, as he calls them in court filings, did not adhere to laws set forth in the Mississippi Constitution.

Gunn disagreed, claiming the wording of the state constitution did not specify the rate of speed in which bills are read as long as the bills are read.

The Supreme Court decided that it “lacks constitutional authority to interfere in the procedural workings of the Legislature.”  The high court voted 7-2 to send the case back to the Hinds County Circuit Court with instructions to dismiss the case.

“Because Speaker Gunn has been presiding over the House floor all day, he has not had a chance to read it in its entirety,” said Meg Annison, spokeswoman for Gunn. “But he says, ‘From what I understand, this seems like a legally sound decision.’ ”

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford

“Playing the bills at warp speed is wrong,” Hughes told Mississippi Today on Thursday afternoon. “I had hoped the judiciary would see that their duty is to enforce the constitution. While there are many times I may disagree with the court, I respect the ruling.”

The battle between Gunn and Hughes dates back to last year’s 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 recent years, a machine has been used to read the bills aloud in place of the clerk.

During the 2016 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.

There was never a hearing in circuit court as 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.

After oral arguments were made in July, the high court deliberated the case and whether it had jurisdiction to act.

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

The court ruling can be read here.

 

  • Charles Pearce

    A reading machine on the floor of the Mississippi Legislature is a device of shame and backwardness. Why embarrass citizens any longer with this archaic procedure?

  • Jeff

    Clearly Gunn’s tactics violate the intent and spirit of the Constitutional requirement, if not the letter of the Constitution. Also, if the MSSC doesn’t think it has authority to decide Constitutional issues, who does it think has that authority? I think the court chickened out. Chicken courts tend to lose the respect of the people.

    It’s also clear that the provision should be changed such that legislators can no longer use the reading tactic to stall the legislature’s business instead of just doing their jobs.