Wednesday 21 February 2018

Duelling ban repeal a loaded question for Oregon voters

The chief sponsor of the proposal says the duelling ban is an archaic rule unnecessary in modern times
The chief sponsor of the proposal says the duelling ban is an archaic rule unnecessary in modern times

Oregon may have an unusual request for voters in the next election that harks back to that fateful summer day in 1804 when a bitter rivalry between US vice president Aaron Burr and the nation's first treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton was settled with a fatal gunshot.

Should ongoing discussions in Salem materialise, voters will see a question on their general election ballots asking if a 172-year-old ban on duelling by public officials - the old-fashioned way of resolving fights - should be erased from the Oregon constitution.

The constitutional ban in question is Article II, Section 9, which says anyone who offers, accepts, knowingly participates in a "challenge to fight a duel ... or who shall agree to go out of the State to fight a duel, shall be ineligible to any office of trust, or profit".

The article was signed into law just 30 minutes after its drafting by the second provisional legislature in 1845, nearly 15 years before Oregon's statehood, when squabbles were still often resolved by duels even decades after Hamilton's death on the opposite side of the country.

"They decided that it would not be very civil if two members of the legislature disagreed and then shot each other on the front steps of the provisional capitol," Republican senator Brian Boquist said during the proposal's first committee hearing.

Today though, says Mr Boquist, chief sponsor of the proposal, it is an archaic rule unnecessary for obvious reasons in modern times.

But, like any change to the constitution, repealing it must be approved by Oregon voters.

Because this particular constitutional change is being proposed by politicians rather than citizens, it must first go through the legislature's approval process like any other bill.

If it passes both chambers, the measure will then be referred to voters, rather than the governor, for the final say.

The proposed repeal of Oregon's old ban on duelling would appear on voter ballots as Senate Joint Resolution 44, or SJR 44.

During this week's hearing, Mr Boquist said the article was certainly not the only constitutional provision that would surprise modern-day Oregonians.

"I want you to know that most of your stationery is probably in violation of the law because we have a constitutional clause as to how we can use our stationery,"he told the committee.

He acknowledged the best option would be to tackle all of these constitutional issues at once, rather than piece-by-piece as his proposal would do.

The state's constitution still makes references to, for instance, slavery and titles of family nobility, he said, while various amendments over the years sometimes cause contradictions between sections that could become problematic.

"We also do not have a balanced-budget amendment, contrary to popular belief," Mr Boquist said. "The problem with ignoring all those things is that eventually they catch up to us."

Democratic senator Ginny Burdick, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, kicked off the discussion by jokingly calling it "the bill I've been waiting all session for".

She later wrapped up the talks with another touch of humour, saying: "Well, I'm deeply disappointed that the ambitions for this bill are bigger than duelling, because I was all set to go."

The sole public testimony came from Dan Meek, a Portland lawyer and Oregon Progressive Party spokesman, who opposes Mr Boquist's proposal for two reasons.

"This resolution would allow the candidacies of persons who give or accept challenges to fight duels," Mr Meek wrote to the committee.

"Also, there is a cost to removing obviously unenforced and unenforceable provisions in the Oregon constitution, including the cost of processing and printing this resolution on millions of ballots and processing the results."

State revenue officials agree, adding that such costs - the amounts of which are unknown until election year - would be rolled into the state's expenses for administering elections.

All proposals have until April 18 to clear out of their initial policy committees or be referred to a special committee, such as ways and means, or they will fail.


Press Association

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