Oklahoma high court strikes down tort reform law as unconstitutional

June 10, 2013

Oklahoma lawIt’s usually pretty big news when a state strikes down a law as unconstitutional, especially when that law is one that has become nationally popular.

Such a law was recently thrown out by Oklahoma’s high court.

On June 4, the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down the Comprehensive Lawsuit Reform Act of 2009 (CLRA) as invalid under the state’s constitution.

As one could surmise from the title, the law is an extensive set of tort reform laws (“tort reform” refers to laws that make civil actions more difficult or burdensome for plaintiffs and make defending against them cheaper and easier).

However, the ruling is unlikely to serve as a blueprint for invalidating similar tort reform measures nationwide.

Why?

Because of the unique provision of the Oklahoma State Constitution under which the CLRA was held invalid: the single-subject rule.

The “single-subject rule” is an anti-logrolling provision that requires that “every act of the Legislature shall embrace but one subject, which shall be clearly expressed in its title.”  This means that every bill, with limited exception, must be limited to only one subject matter.

The provision is actually not a recent addition; rather, it was enacted over a century ago.

Moreover, it strives to achieve a rather populist goal:  to “prohibit the practice of ensuring the passage of a law by creating one choice in which a legislator or voter is forced to assent to an unfavorable provision to secure passage of a favorable one, or conversely, forced to vote against a favorable provision to ensure an unfavorable provision is not enacted.”

Under Oklahoma case law, the provision’s principal concern “is not how similar two provisions in a proposed law are, but whether it appears either that the proposal is misleading or that the provisions in the proposal are so unrelated that many of those voting on the law would be faced with an unpalatable all-or-nothing choice.”

These anti-logrolling provisions were far more common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries than they are today, when they are increasingly falling out of favor with legislators wanting to ensure the passage or defeat of certain legislation.  Still, it’s easy to understand the appeal of requiring legislatures to discuss and act on only one subject matter at a time.

Anyhow, as stated above, Oklahoma’s supreme court found that the CLRA was unconstitutional under the state’s anti-logrolling provision.

The reason for this wasn’t that there were too many provisions unrelated to “tort reform;” instead, the court found that the legislature’s definition of “tort reform” in passing the CLRA was far too broad, and the majority of the Act’s 90 provisions do not reflect a common theme or subject.

According to the court, the first 24 sections of the law “amend and create new laws within [the state’s] civil procedure code,” many of which “have nothing in common.”  Of the remaining 66 sections of the Act, “45 sections create entirely new Acts, which have nothing in common with each other. “

The remaining sections modify existing law in dissimilar ways, such as by limiting the liability of firearms manufacturers and by amending the Oklahoma Livestock Activities Liability Limitation Act.

Although all of these provisions relate to “tort reform” – that is, civil defendant-friendly changes to the law and civil procedure rules – this relation wasn’t sufficient for the Oklahoma high court, who found that “the Legislature’s use of the broad topic of lawsuit reform does not cure the bill’s single-subject defects.”

Thus, the court concluded that these “defects” could “only be corrected by the Legislature by considering the acts within the CLRA of 2009 separately.

The Oklahoma Legislature will very likely do this for most, if not all, of the provisions, but it will be a far more difficult task than simply passing them in a combined bill.

The implications outside of the state’s borders, though, will be far more limited.  The Oklahoma Supreme Court found no due process or equal protection violations in the Act; instead, it was invalidated based on a constitutional provision found in an ever decreasing number of states.

So while a headline of “tort reform law ruled unconstitutional” may initially seem quite significant, in this case, the impact of the ruling is more academic than applicable.