On a recent weekday in the Colorado Capitol, a well known sound for someone familiar with the Mississippi Legislature could be heard through the state House chamber: a computer application reading a bill.
A security officer in the Colorado House gallery was asked what was happening.
“Bills are being read to slow down the process,” the officer said. He went on to explain that Colorado House and Senate members can request a bill to be read as a form of protest or just to slow the legislative process.
The security officer was told that a similar procedure is used in the Mississippi Legislature, but the difference – and a distinct one – is that the bill was being read in the Colorado Legislature at a pace that could be comprehended.
When there is a request by a member to read a bill in the Mississippi Legislature, House clerks set the computer application at such a rapid pace that comprehension is impossible. It’s become known in the Capitol as “the demon chipmunk.”
The security officer said the Colorado Supreme Court had ruled that the bill readings had to be comprehensible.
That is not what the Mississippi Supreme Court said. In a 6-2 decision in 2018, the state Supreme Court said the reading of the bills did not have to be comprehensible. The demon chipmunk mode on the computer application was just fine.
Both the Mississippi and Colorado constitutions give legislators the authority to have a bill read aloud before a final vote. In both states, the minority party – the Republicans in Colorado and Democrats in Mississippi – filed lawsuits trying to prevent the incomprehensible reading of bills.
Former state Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, who filed the lawsuit challenging the rapid reading of the bills, said the difference in the rulings is an illustration of what happens when all branches of government are controlled by one party like in Mississippi.
“That is a shame because everyone – even the least powerful – should have a voice,” Hughes said.
Hughes was wrong about at least one thing. In Colorado, it was a justice appointed by a Democratic governor who agreed with the Republican minority that the framers of the constitution intended for the bills to be read at an understandable pace.
According to the Colorado Sun, Justice Carlos Samour Jr., appointed by a Democratic governor, wrote, “There are unquestionably different ways by which the legislature may comply with the reading requirement. But the cacophony generated by the computers here isn’t one of them. And while we have no business dictating the specifics of how the legislature might comply with the reading requirement, it is our prerogative and responsibility to declare that the legislature did not comply with that requirement in this case.”
Colorado Republicans argued that the bill reading is one of the few tools they have to impact the legislative process and that tool should not be taken away or manipulated in such a way as to dimmish its impact.
The Mississippi justices had a different view.
Then-Mississippi Central District Justice Jess Dickerson wrote for the majority, “By requesting the courts to force Speaker Gunn to read bills in a particular manner, Rep. Hughes seeks to involve the judiciary in legislative procedural matters. The text of our state Constitution that imposes upon the Legislature the obligation to read bills upon a member’s request, necessarily commits upon the Legislature the obligation to determine how that request will be carried out.”
Interestingly, in Colorado the justices listened to the issue at hand – the bills being read at the incomprehensible pace. In Mississippi, the justices refused to allow Hughes to enter into evidence the demon chipmunk reading application.
The result of the court rulings is that an out-of-state visitor can go into a legislative gallery in the spectacular Mississippi Capitol and be confused and baffled by the impossible-to-understand demon chipmunk.
Out-of-state visitors to the also spectacular Colorado Capitol will have to go into the wilderness of the Rocky Mountains to hear such an incomprehensible sound.
This analysis was produced by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics and culture. Bobby Harrison is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.
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