By Sean Murphy
The Associated Press
OKLAHOMA CITY — At the request of Gov. Mary Fallin, the Oklahoma Legislature returned to the state Capitol on Tuesday for a special session to address changes to the way civil lawsuits are handled in the state.
The House and Senate convened shortly after 1 p.m. for the first special session since 2006. It is the first time Fallin has called a special session.
Fallin, a Republican, requested the special session after the Oklahoma Supreme Court in June threw out a comprehensive 2009 bill that overhauled the state’s civil justice system.
“I think this is one of the most important issues facing the state of Oklahoma,” Fallin said on Tuesday. “That’s why I’ve called a special session today. It’s important for our business climate, not only retaining businesses and attracting new businesses, but it’s also important to helping with our high medical costs in the state.”
Fallin and other proponents of the changes say they help protect businesses and doctors from frivolous lawsuits, but opponents claim they restrict the access of citizens to the court. Fallin said since the tort-reform bill passed in 2009, the number of medical malpractice cases in the state dropped 39 percent.
But the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled the bill was an unconstitutional example of “logrolling,” or including multiple subjects in a single bill. As a result, legislators plan to introduce about 30 separate bills to address all of the changes that were made in 2009.
In a separate ruling, the state’s highest court also rejected as unconstitutional a requirement that plaintiffs in professional negligence lawsuits must have an expert endorse their case in what is referred to as a certificate of merit. The court said requiring that certificate “creates a monetary barrier to access the court system.”
House and Senate leaders said Tuesday they planned to introduce a certificate of merit bill, although it’s not clear if such a measure would pass constitutional muster.
“We’ve just asked them to work very carefully in drafting the legislation to make sure it will pass a constitutional test,” Fallin said. “Hopefully they’ll be able to get that done through the House and the Senate, and then once it reaches my desk, then we will review that legally to make sure we believe it is constitutional.”
Democrats, who are in the minority in both the House and Senate, attempted to expand the call of the special session to include other topics such as increasing pay for prison workers and Highway Patrol troopers and putting storm shelters in public schools, but those motions were defeated in the House.
Democrats also criticized a series of special House rules that were being implemented to prohibit amendments to the bills and to limit questions on the measures. The House is expected to vote on those rules later this week.
“That, my friends, is not openness. That is not transparency. That is not good government,” said House Democratic Leader Rep. Scott Inman, D-Del City. “This is simply a power grab.
“Apparently that’s what the governor and Republican leaders think is the best form of government possible. In our opinion, it’s disgusting.”
House Majority Floor Leader Pam Peterson said all of the language in the bills already has been approved by the Legislature and that limiting the amount of questions and procedural motions will help expedite the special session.
“We’re not silencing anybody,” said Peterson, R-Tulsa. “I think everybody will have time to debate and ask questions, but we also want to make sure we conduct our business expeditiously.”
A special session costs an estimated $30,000 each day to pay staff and to reimburse members for travel and lodging. Fallin and legislative leaders have said they hope to wrap up the special session by early next week, after five or six legislative days.