Oregon Republicans Bet It All on a Constitutional Loophole. They Just Lost Big-Time.

Last year, 10 Republican state senators in Oregon walked out of the Legislature for six weeks to obstruct Democratic bills promoting reproductive rights, transgender equality, and gun safety. The GOP senators’ boycott paralyzed the chamber, stalling hundreds of bills by preventing lawmakers from conducting any work. Their hardball tactic succeeded in the short term, forcing Democrats to water down their signature measures. On Thursday, however, it backfired badly: The Oregon Supreme Court unanimously prohibited all 10 senators from running for reelection, enforcing a constitutional provision designed to punish this kind of petulant legislative obstruction.

Thursday’s decision marks a major defeat for the hardball tactics that Oregon Republicans have deployed to prevent Democrats from governing the state. Under the Oregon Constitution, each chamber of the Legislature may only conduct business if two-thirds of its members are present. Republicans, who’ve long held a minority of seats, have recently exploited this rule to bring the statehouse to a standstill. In 2019, they walked out to block a school funding bill, and used the resulting leverage to kill Democratic bills on gun safety and vaccine exemptions. The next year, they walked out to kill a Democratic climate change–related bill, forestalling the passage of more than 100 other measures. And in 2021, they walked out to protest COVID-19 restrictions and redistricting plans. Each time, Republicans lacked the votes to defeat progressive proposals outright, so they shut down all legislative business instead—holding the statehouse hostage in retaliation against the Democrats whom voters elected to run the government.

To end this chicanery, Oregon voters overwhelmingly supported a constitutional amendment that would penalize any lawmaker who walked out. Under the new measure, a senator or representative who misses more than 10 floor sessions without an excuse may not run for reelection. Or, at least, that is how both sides of the initiative described it, and how it was framed for voters in official ballot materials.

But after its enactment, Republican senators contested this (heretofore uncontroversial) reading. The amendment, they noted, bars absentee legislators from running “for the term following the election after the member’s current term is completed.” But while elections take place in November, the legislative term does not end until the following January. Republicans thus argued that “the election” after the “current term” means the election that’s four years after the next election. In Oregon, senators hold four-year terms. So according to the GOP’s gloss on the amendment, a senator elected in 2020 who walked out in 2023 is not disqualified from the next election (in 2024) but rather the election after that one (in 2028).

In reliance on this reading of the text, Republican senators staged an ambitious walkout last year, fleeing the chamber for six weeks. This tactic ultimately secured concessions from Democrats that limited minors’ access to abortion, thwarted new protections for transgender health care, and stripped away a ban on the sale of assault weapons to people under 21. Secretary of State LaVonne Griffin-Valade announced in August that the 10 participants in this walkout were ineligible for reelection. Five of them sued, insisting that their interpretation of the constitutional amendment protected their right to run in 2024, and did not render them ineligible until 2028.

The Oregon Supreme Court acknowledged that the amendment’s language was poorly drafted, but sided with the secretary of state’s interpretation. Given this muddled text, the court looked to the history of the ballot measure to determine how voters understood it. And literally all the evidence points in one direction. The caption printed on every ballot said absentee legislators would be “disqualified from holding next term of office.” A statement on the ballot explaining the result of a “yes” vote said the disqualification would apply to the “term following current term of office.” The official voters’ pamphlet provided by the state said the same thing, and added an “explanatory statement” stating that the disqualification would bar “the legislator from holding office after the legislator’s current term ends.”

In light of this evidence, the court sided with the secretary of state’s interpretation of the amendment. It held that the phrase “after the member’s current term is completed” applies to “the term,” not “the election.” That means “the election” mentioned in the text is the next election, not the election after the next one. So all 10 senators who walked out in 2023 are forbidden from running for reelection. Only two of these senators planned to retire. Four were elected in 2020 and will be locked out of reelection this year—a group that includes Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp. The remaining four were elected in 2022 and will be locked out of reelection in 2026. (All may run again after sitting out one cycle.)

There is an interesting lesson here with implications for the effort to disqualify Donald Trump from reelection in 2024: The case illustrates why knocking a candidate off the ballot is not inherently undemocratic. Oregon Republicans, of course, did not engage in insurrection, as Trump’s opponents claim he did. But these senators did wield their power to prevent the people’s representatives from conducting the basic business of governance. It is perfectly legitimate for the citizenry to determine that an officeholder’s attempt to obstruct the legislative process disqualifies them from seeking office in the future.

Yes, Trump tried to block the counting of electoral votes, a weightier task than passing gun control or a new budget. Nonetheless, his end goal was to shut down the Senate until he got what he wanted (in the form of an unearned second term). Oregon legislators tried to shut down their Senate until Democrats became so desperate to keep the state running that they came to the table with concessions. The situations obviously differ in important respects, but they share a through-line: an interference with the operation of government that transcends checks and balances to subvert constitutional traditions at the core of representative democracy.

Trump’s opponents argue that, by enacting Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, the American people used the democratic process to safeguard the presidency from those who cannot be trusted to hold it. Oregon’s voters made a similar (if less fraught and dramatic) decision to safeguard their statehouse from lawmakers who cannot be trusted to exercise legislative duties responsibly. Neither judgment call threatens democracy; to the contrary, they enhance it by declaring that certain conduct is so harmful to self-governance that those who engage in it must be kept out of power as a matter of constitutional decree. Our rights are strengthened, not imperiled, when we enshrine that decision in our laws.