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Senate rule violation letter from Senators Morgan and de la Cruz



Senators Jessica de la Cruz (Republican, District 23, Burrillville, Glocester) and Senator Elaine Morgan (Republican, District 34, Exeter Hopkinton, Richmond, West Greenwich) today sent an open letter to Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (Democrat, District 4, Providence) and Senator Frank Lombardi, Chair of the Senate Rules Committee, objecting to the transfer of the Reproductive Privacy Act (RPA) (H5125B) from the Senate Judiciary Committee to Senate Health and Human Services Committee yesterday.

Here’s the letter:

Pursuant to public notice, the Senate Judiciary Committee scheduled for consideration H 5125 Sub B on June 11, 2019. Under Senate Rule 5.2, the Senate President [Ruggerio], the Majority [Senator Michael McCaffrey (Democrat, District 29, Warwick)] and Minority [Senator Dennis Algiere (Republican, District 38, Westerly, Charlestown)] Leaders, and the Majority Senator Maryellen Goodwin (Democrat, District 1, Providence) and Minority [Morgan] Whips are ex-officio members with voting rights of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Ex-officio members of both parties have voted in committee in the past.

On June 11, 2019, the Senate Minority Leader and Senate Minority Whip were present at the Senate Judiciary Committee. They, along with other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, were prepared to debate and vote on H 5125 Sub B. Instead, Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Erin Lynch Prata [(Democrat, District 31, Warwick, Cranston)] refused to allow a debate or vote on the H 5125 Sub B. Chairwoman Lynch Prata declared she was transferring the bill to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

Minority Whip Elaine Morgan objected to the statement by Chairwoman Lynch Prata. Senator Morgan was ready to make a motion to defeat H 5125 Sub B and debate the motion. Senator Jessica de la Cruz, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was ready to second her motion to defeat the bill. Chairwoman Lynch Prata overruled Senator Morgan’s objection and declared there is “no appropriate objection” because she had “absolute authority” and this was “her committee.”

However, Lynch Prata’s authority is not absolute. It is circumscribed by the fact that the transfer can only occur on the Senate floor, not within a committee. Bills can only be transferred from one committee to another committee pursuant to Senate Rule 6.14. This rule only permits Chairwoman Lynch Prata to transfers bills “during the reports of committees.” Senate Rule 3.3 makes it clear that the “reports of committees” only occurs on the Senate floor. It does not occur while the bill is scheduled for consideration in the committee.

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Furthermore, the Senate Judiciary Committee is not her committee. It is a committee of consisting of nine regular members and five ex-officio members. If a majority of those members present wanted to vote on a motion to defeat the bill, which was scheduled for consideration, they had a right to do so. Chairwoman Lynch Prata’s actions in the committee were inconsistent with Senate Rule 6.14. She violated the Senate Rules.

Senator Morgan was present at the Senate Judiciary Committee. There is no requirement under the Senate Rules that a voting member who is present in the room be seated at a table to vote or make a motion. Senator Morgan made an objection to Lynch Prata’s declaration she was transferring the bill. Chairwoman’s Lynch Prata refused to hear it. From Lynch Prata behavior and words it was clear that she would not recognize Senator Morgan for any motion. Lynch Prata was determined to steamroll the majority of those present at the Senate Judiciary Committee, and deny them the opportunity to vote on a bill that was scheduled for consideration.

Legislation can be declared void if it is passed in manner inconsistent with the State Constitution or legislative rules. See Moore v Langton, 92 R.I. 141 (1961). In Moore, a state tax on intangible personal property as declared invalid because the bill passed when a quorum was not present in the House of Representatives. Id., at 147. If this abortion bill is passed because of Chairwoman Lynch Prata’s egregious behavior, which violated the Senate Rules, it might “so affect legislation, so enacted, as to taint it … whenever it might be questioned in a litigated case affecting private rights or the rights of the public,” See To Certain Members of the House of Representatives in the General Assembly, 191. A. 269, 272 (1937).

To avoid this, we request that H 5125 Sub B be returned to Senate Judiciary Committee for a vote so that all nine regular members and five ex-officio members of the committee can vote on the bill to determine if it should proceed to the Senate floor. The three ex-officio members of the Democratic Senate leadership would have the opportunity to vote in favor of the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Whatever outcome, it would at least be consistent with the Senate Rules and would not taint the legislation.

We are making this request to Senate president Dominick Ruggerio and to the Senate Rules, Government Ethics and Oversight Committee, which has authority to “consider all matters relating to the rules of the senate” under Senate Rule 5.1-10.

Senate Rule Violation Letter

Senate Spokesperson Greg Paré writes:

Perhaps Senator Morgan should learn all the rules before trying to bend them to her purposes. Sen. Lynch Prata has the unilateral authority under Senate Rule 6.14 to transfer any piece of legislation to another committee for any reason.

In the same way Sen. Morgan attempted to utilize the rules that grant her ex-officio voting privileges to derail a piece of legislation, Sen. Lynch Prata used her authority under the rules to salvage the bill, which is the product of months of work and negotiation.

The transfer of legislation from one committee to another is routine. This session and last, 19 bills were transferred from one committee to another. What is unusual is for Sen. Morgan to vote in her ex-officio capacity. This year and last, Sen. Morgan has voted in her ex-officio capacity only once, and that was in an instance when the Republican member of the committee was absent.

With regard to the bogus allegations by the Republican Party: Sen. Morgan did not ask to be recognized in committee. She never made a motion. She never even took her seat. She objected to the transfer of the legislation, but that is not an objectionable action in committee. A transfer is an action of the chairwoman, not a motion. It is not subject to debate in committee, and typically not even discussed.

The transfer takes place via a committee report that is read on the Senate floor. When Sen. Morgan attempted to object in committee yesterday, she was advised by Chairwoman Lynch Prata that the appropriate place to object would be on the floor. However, when the committee report was made on the floor yesterday, in accordance with the Senate Rules, Sen. Morgan did not object.

The legislation is now properly before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, which will vote on the measure on Thursday. Should the bill pass committee on Thursday, it will come to the floor next week and all senators will have the opportunity to make their voices heard on behalf of their constituents. It is disingenuous of Sen. Morgan to suggest that democracy would be better served by the defeat of the bill in committee without a vote by the full Senate.

(As an aside: The transfer of legislation is routine, and the only reason it has drawn any attention in this instance is because of the high profile nature of the bill. As a recent example, S-454, requiring insurance coverage for contraceptives, was initially assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee, then scheduled for hearing. The hearing on the bill was not held and the bill was transferred to the Health and Human Services Committee on April 23.)

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio responds to the letter sent by Senators Morgan and de la Cruz:

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About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.