Ruling could invalidate thousands of laws


The Birmingham News staff writer

Alabama - At 4 p.m. March 30, the eyes of the Alabama House of Representatives, the Senate and local governments throughout the state will focus on a third-floor courtroom in Birmingham. At stake is a ruling that could invalidate hundreds or thousands of laws that apply to most counties and many cities.

Circuit Judge Scott Vowell's ruling this month appeared to be a local dispute. Birmingham and Jefferson County had challenged the constitutionality of two laws last year which allowed the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center Authority to keep money that otherwise would have paid city and county sales taxes. The authority planned to use this money to help pay for a $498 million sports and convention dome.

But when Vowell ruled that the voting process for the laws was unconstitutional, it potentially cast a long shadow. If applied to existing laws, the ruling would invalidate many taxes that are crucial to local governments.

"It would probably bankrupt most of the counties in the state," said Rep. Arthur Payne, R-Center Point.

Vowell's ruling said the Alabama Constitution requires a bill to get at least 27 "yes" votes in the House of Representatives to pass. The rub is that many so-called "local bills" - laws for local governments on issues like taxes and annexations - get passed in the House of Representatives with fewer than 27 "yes" votes.

When all the members of a local delegation, such as the 18 representatives for Jefferson County, agree on a local bill, there is usually no problem. The rest of the House can vote "yes" with them and easily surpass the 27-vote threshold.

But the Legislature has long taken a different approach whenever delegation members disagree on a bill that affects their locality. In that case, the rest of the Legislature stands aside, so only the local delegation will vote whether to pass or defeat the bill.

In those cases, which usually include most bills to raise taxes, the bill will pass the House with fewer than 27 votes, Payne said.

Payne said he has seen local bills pass with as few as two or three "yes" votes.

The Legislature believes this kind of vote is constitutional, said Oakley Melton Jr., an attorney for the Senate and the House. He has asked permission to present additional arguments before Vowell on March 30.

Melton says two things are needed to pass a bill in the House. First, a quorum has to be present, which in the House would be 53 representatives out of the total of 105. Second, there has to be a majority of "yes" votes - which only means the "yes" votes have to outnumber the "no" votes. Thus a bill could pass by a vote of something like 2-1, with the rest of the representatives abstaining.

Vowell agreed the quorum has to be present. But on the second requirement about a majority of "yes" votes, he differed in his interpretation of the Alabama Constitution.

Majority of each house:

Section 63 of the constitution says that to become law, a bill must get a favorable vote of a "majority of each house." Vowell said Alabama Supreme Court decisions have interpreted the word "house" to mean the number of legislators it takes to create a quorum in either the House or the Senate.

Since the quorum for the House of Representatives is 53, Vowell interpreted Section 63 as requiring a bill to have a favorable vote of a majority of 53 representatives.

Thus he said the two BJCC bills needed 27 "yes" votes each to pass. Since they only had 18 and 21 "yes" votes, he ruled them unconstitutional.

Mary Ward, front desk supervisor for the journal of the House of Representatives, said Vowell's interpretation if upheld by the Alabama Supreme Court would jolt Montgomery.

"Oh, good grief," she said. "It would affect the whole legislative process."

Melton called Vowell's interpretation "far-reaching and indeed shocking" to traditional procedures in the Legislature. He said the ruling would effectively void hundreds, possibly thousands, of local laws and would impede the parliamentary process of the Legislature.

Researchers at the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama say at least 34,000 local laws have passed between 1919 and 2002. They say it would take a huge effort to find out how many votes each law had.

Even if Vowell's interpretation applied only to the future, it would sharply alter the work of the House of Representatives. Under the Vowell standard, the 18 Jefferson County representatives, for example, would have to go shopping for extra votes from the rest of the House to reach the 27-vote threshold.

"It would create all kinds of confusion and ill will in the legislative bodies," Payne said. "You would have people from other counties diddling in one county's business."

Future bills only?:

Jerry Bassett, director of the state Legislative Reference Service, said that if the Supreme Court upholds Vowell, there is precedent for applying a new interpretation only to future bills. In two major cases that changed the Legislature's handling of local bills - one in 1978 involving general bills of local application and one in 1998 involving required advertising of local bills - the Supreme Court applied the new standards only to future bills, Bassett said.

Melton said he hopes to present the Legislature's interpretation of Section 63 at the March 30 hearing. The hearing will primarily allow additional arguments to be included in the court record. Facts are not in dispute, and both sides expect the next step will be an appeal to the Supreme Court.

The attorney general's office has said it will file a brief opposing Vowell's interpretation, said Thomas Stewart, one of the lawyers representing the Civic Center Authority.



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