Senate Set to Change Rules to Protect Michael Morton

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If there is one thing that we’ve learned so far this session, it is that some legislators are so enamored with the money that nursing home owners — including the likely-to-be-indicted Michael Morton — can offer to campaigns that they are willing to do just about anything to keep that gravy train running. Amendment 94 appears to bar them from receiving free lunches on Morton’s dime? No problem — just call it a “scheduled event” and hold it in a private apartment every single day. Hell, there’s even a sign out front, just in case someone forgets where the trough is located.

Price? Free, Assuming You Have No Conscience
Price? Free, Assuming You Have No Conscience

What Morton and the other nursing home owners want in exchange is, basically, the peace of mind that comes from knowing that a death in one of their homes is going to cost them, at most, $250,000.  To get that, they need (the misleadingly named) “tort reform.”

Of course, because much of the last major run at “tort reform” in 2003 was struck down as unconstitutional by the Arkansas Supreme Court, Morton and the rest cannot rely on the legislature to simply pass a bill that puts a cap on wrongful-death damages.  Instead, they need to change the constitution itself and, by extension, they need legislature to refer a constitutional amendment to the people.

Generally speaking, all proposed constitutional amendments must go through the Joint Committee on State Agencies.  Under the rules of the House and rules of the Senate, a bill that is in a regular committee can be pulled out and brought before the full chamber on a simple majority vote.  Joint committees, however, are governed by the Joint Rules, and those rules require a 2/3 vote from the chamber to pull a vote out of the Joint Committee on State Agencies.

Therein lies the rub: As luck would have it for the pro-Michael Morton contingent, while the Senate has already passed the Joint Rules, the House has not.  (Why have they not passed the Joint Rules this far into the session?  Great question.  You should definitely call your Representative and ask that.)  So the plan, which is rumored to be the brainchild of Sen. Jim Hendren (R-Gravette) with input from Morton’s primary water-carrier in the legislature, Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot), is for the Senate to vote to recall the Joint Rules from the House before the House adopts them.

The net result of such a recall would be that there are no Joint Rules.  By default, joint committees would then be governed by the regular House and Senate Rules.  Meaning that the chambers could pull a proposed amendment — say, one of the “tort reform” amendments proposed by Sen. Williams — out of the Joint Committee on State Agencies with a simple majority vote.

A few things worth noting here:

  • The Senate is apparently going to take up the vote on recalling the Joint Rules today at 11am.  If you care about this issue at all, you should try to be at the Capitol for this vote.
  • As far as I can tell, at no point in the many years that the Democrats held both chambers did they ever pull a move like this.
  • Michael Morton is tangled up in the bribery of a state judge, which was done solely to get a wrongful-death jury award reduced from $5.2M to $1M.  Yet, rather than distance themselves from Morton, some legislators are actually trying to change the rules in the middle of the game to ensure that Morton never has to worry about that kind of verdict against one of his homes ever again?  Really?

So, that’s where we stand right now, represented by a handful of legislators who are fine with the idea of not having any Joint Rules if that lack of rules ultimately means that nursing homes can factor the cost resident deaths into their decision-making calculus.[foot]”Let’s see…if I can spend $2M to make this place safer, but only 6 people are likely to die if I don’t spend the $2M…and 6 deaths will only cost me $1.5M tops….”[/foot]  If this doesn’t trouble you, maybe you should re-read the details of Marta Bull’s death.  Or read about a bed sore ‘the size of your fist,” like the one that was on Herman Press when he died.