Clinton’s Phillip Gunn prevails in ‘demon chipmunk’

Published 10:35 am Friday, February 10, 2017

By Emily Wagster Pettus

Associated Press

JACKSON — The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled Thursday that it has no power to settle a dispute over how the Legislature operates.

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The decision is a victory for the Republican House speaker in a 2016 spat over his use of a speedy computer voice to read bills aloud in the House chamber. Some lawmakers jokingly called the cartoonish voice a “demon chipmunk.”

“We are without constitutional authority to resolve this dispute,” a majority of justices wrote.

The Mississippi Constitution allows any lawmaker to have a bill read aloud immediately before a final vote on it, and the readings are a common filibuster tactic. House Democrats forced readings in March because they thought their ideas were being ignored by the Republican supermajority.

Speaker Philip Gunn of Clinton ordered the House staff to use a computer-generated voice to read the bills, and it was put on a warp-speed setting that was difficult to understand.

Democratic Rep. Jay Hughes of Oxford sued Gunn, contending that the speedy setting violated the constitutional provision for bill reading. Gunn said legislators have instant access to bills online, so it’s not necessary for them to understand the oral reading.

Justices did not listen to recordings of the bill readings as they considered the dispute.

“We hold that this court lacks constitutional authority to interfere in the procedural workings of the Legislature, even when those procedures are constitutionally mandated,” a majority of justices ruled. “This limitation on our power has been recognized by this court for more than a century.”

The ruling reflects arguments made by Gunn’s attorney.

“It sounds like they made a legally sound decision,” Gunn said Thursday.

In a dissent, Justice Leslie King wrote that the Supreme Court should have sent the lawsuit back to the court where it was filed to let a circuit judge consider arguments.

“Rep. Hughes has not had the opportunity to provide evidence that members of the House may be uninformed as to the text of the bills, or that the machine’s speed caused confusion or misunderstanding of the bills,” wrote King, who served in the state House before being elected to the Court of Appeals, then the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court ordered the circuit court to dismiss Hughes’ lawsuit.

Hughes said Thursday that he does not regret the suit:  “I’d far rather fight and fail than stand by and watch a wrong happen without doing anything.”