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State Ethics Lawsuit Hinges On Separation Of Powers, Attorneys Say

The Oklahoma Judicial Center houses the state Supreme Court, the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Trevor Brown
Oklahoma Watch
The Oklahoma Judicial Center houses the state Supreme Court, the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Administrative Office of the Courts.

In a lawsuit filed against Gov. Mary Fallin and other state officials, the Oklahoma Ethics Commission alleges that its appropriation for the current fiscal year is insufficient and therefore violates the state constitution.

Article 29 of the Oklahoma constitution states, “The Ethics Commission shall receive an annual appropriation by the Legislature sufficient to enable it to perform its duties…” Those duties include enforcing campaign finance rules and regulating the ethical behavior of elected officials and some state employees.

Supreme Court referee Ann Hadrava heard arguments for the case on Tuesday. And she said the case hinges on the sufficiency clause.

“There are a lot of issues, but the main issue is sufficiency,” Hadrava said in Tuesday’s hearing. “I think the question for the court is what does that mean and who determines what it means?”

Lawyers for the Ethics Commission argue the court should weigh in on the issue, but Hadrava referred to a 2007 case, Oklahoma Education Association v State,  in which the court backed away from the sufficiency question.

How does the court determine what’s sufficient or what sufficiency is? That turns the court into a fact-finding entity, which the court has declined to do,” Hadrava said.

Robert McCampbell, representing the House of Representatives, said it would be inappropriate for the court to weigh in on the issue. McCampbell argued the Ethics Commission is asking the court to answer a political question meant for the legislative and executive branches. He said the Ethics Commission is like all other state agencies, and its budget has been determined appropriately according to state statute.

But because the Ethics Commission is written into the state constitution, its lawyers argue the agency is unique and that it would be appropriate for the court to resolve what they call an “intolerable conflict” between the state constitution and state statute.

Toward the end of Tuesday’s hearing, Hadrava asked Senate attorney Cara Rodriguez if it would ever be appropriate for the court to determine sufficiency. “Say for instance the appropriation was zero. Is there ever an instance where this court would have jurisdiction to intervene?” Hadrava asked.

Rodriguez responded that Hadrava’s hypothetical was not the question before the court.

Hadrava will submit a report to the state Supreme Court, which will be used to decide the case, dismiss it or set it for oral arguments.

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Caroline produced Capitol Insider and did general assignment reporting from 2018 to 2019. She joined KGOU after a stint at Marfa Public Radio, where she covered a wide range of local and regional issues in far west Texas. Previously, she reported on state politics for KTOO Public Media in Alaska and various outlets in Washington State.
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