A stance Gov. Tate Reeves made in the 2016 “demon chipmunk” case could conflict with the position he is now taking on whether the Legislature followed the state constitution last Friday when they passed a bill to ensure that the governor does not have sole spending authority of $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds.
Reeves himself has not denied that the issue could end up in court in what is shaping up as a contentious and high-stakes battle between the executive and legislative branches.
The 2016 “demon chipmunk” case originated from the constitutional mandate that any legislator has the right for a bill to be read before a vote. To meet that mandate, the House leadership used computer reading software and set it to an unintelligibly high speed – which jokingly became referred to as “the demon chipmunk.”
Then-Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, filed a lawsuit to stop the reading at demon-chipmunk speed, saying it was making a mockery of the constitutional mandate.
Reeves, then lieutenant governor, entered a brief with the Supreme Court arguing that the judiciary did not have the authority to rule on whether the Legislature was following its procedural rules. He argued it did not matter that the rules were mandated by the Constitution.
Citing an 1892 case, Reeves argued that “the constitution as to mere rules of procedure prescribed for the Legislature is committed to the members individually and collectively.”
The court agreed with Reeves, stating, “we hold this court lacks constitutional authority to interfere in the procedural workings of the Legislature even when those procedures are constitutionally mandated.”
Today, as the leaders of the legislative and executive branch bicker over the CARES Act spending authority, Reeves maintains that the bill sent to him last week may not be properly before him to sign or to veto because the Legislature did not follow constitutional guidelines in passing the proposal Friday.
“I think they made a real big mistake,” Reeves said of legislators. “At this point they have not sent a bill. They have sent us a piece of paper.”
House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, have argued that it is clear that the Mississippi Constitution gives the Legislature the power to appropriate funds. By an overwhelming margin, the members of the House and Senate agreed with Gunn and Hosemann in passing a bill to prevent Reeves from independently spending the money.
But in passing the bill, Reeves maintains legislators ignored another constitutional provision: Section 65 that gives any member the right to enter a motion to reconsider the vote on any bill. Legislators have up to the day after the bill passes to enter the motion. And when the motion is entered, the bill cannot move forward in the legislative process until the motion is tabled by a majority vote in the chamber where the motion is made.
After the bill passed the House last Friday, the leadership entered a motion for immediate release and no member objected. That gave leaders the permission to advance the bill to the Senate for consideration without holding it for a day to give House members time to enter a motion to reconsider.
Later Friday, the bill passed the Senate. After that, the Senate and House adjourned. According to the Legislature’s website, no motion for immediate release was entered in the Senate. Such a motion could be made on the next legislative day. But Hosemann and Gunn had already signed the bill and sent it to Reeves for him to sign, veto or allow the bill to become law without his signature.
Reeves has until midnight Thursday to veto the bill unless he maintains that the bill is not properly before him.
“Every single legislator has a constitutional right to hold a bill on a motion to reconsider the day after it passes,” Reeves said. “Just because they are in a hurry to steal the money does not mean the constitutional right is ignored.”
What happens next remains unclear, especially if Reeves chooses to just ignore the bill based on the argument that it is not properly before him. Legislators could argue since he did not act, that means the bill becomes law without his signature and that it is too late to consider such issues as motions to reconsider.
And if Reeves does choose to take the matter to court, the Supreme Court could rule again that its job is not be a watchdog on whether the Legislature follows constitutional provisions in procedural actions — just as it did in the demon chipmunk case.
Or, if legislators wanted to leave no doubt about the procedure, a member of the Senate could be given the option to make a motion to reconsider when they return on Thursday. And if that motion was made, based on Friday’s vote, that motion could be easily defeated and the legislation would be sent to Reeves again. He would then have another five days to decide whether to veto the bill or allow it to become law.
The Legislature was scheduled to return at least by May 18, but on Tuesday legislative leaders announced the Legislature will reconvene on Thursday at 1 p.m.
Senate leaders have not commented on the motion to reconsider issue.