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Rep. Ronald Wright dies from complications related to COVID-19

Rep. Ronald Wright (R-Texas) passed away from complications related to coronavirus on Feb. 7. He was diagnosed with the disease on Jan. 21. Wright was first elected to Texas’ 6th Congressional District in 2018, serving until his death in 2021. 

Wright ran for re-election to the U.S. House of Representatives on Nov. 3, winning with 52.8% of the vote to Stephen Daniel’s (D) 44%. Prior to joining the U.S. House, Wright served as Tarrant County tax assessor-collector from 2011 to 2017. 

According to Article I, Section 2, Clause 4 of the U.S. Constitution, “When vacancies happen in the Representation from any State, the Executive Authority thereof shall issue Writs of Election to fill such Vacancies.” As of Feb. 8, two special elections to the U.S. House had been called: Louisiana’s 2nd and 5th Congressional Districts. With Wright’s death, the current partisan breakdown of the U.S. House is 221 Democrats, 210 Republicans, and four vacancies.   

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Governors flex agency reorganization muscles

Governors in two states recently issued executive orders aimed at reorganizing agencies of the executive branch—with different results.

The Vermont House of Representatives on February 5 voted 108-40 to block Vermont Governor Phil Scott’s (R) executive order that would have established a new state law enforcement agency. Scott’s executive order, issued on January 14, would have merged all of the state’s law enforcement divisions under a newly created Agency of Public Safety.

Legislators argued that the proposed agency merger raised concerns about costs and agency independence that would be better addressed through the legislative process.

Vermont legislators previously blocked two of Scott’s executive orders aimed at reorganizing executive agencies. One of these orders—a proposal to merge the Vermont Lottery Commission and the Department of Liquor Control—was later approved via legislation.

In a statement following the House vote, Scott expressed appreciation for lawmakers’ interest in pursuing the reorganization plan through legislation.

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem (R) on January 19 issued a similar executive order that would restructure executive branch agencies by merging the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to form a new Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources (DANR). Noem argues that the merger will strengthen agriculture operations in the state while promoting conservation efforts.

The South Dakota State Legislature has the authority to oppose the merger, but no lawmakers had raised objections as of February 5.

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Justice on Missouri’s highest court schedules retirement

Missouri Supreme Court Justice Laura Denvir Stith announced on February 2, 2021, that she would retire from the court effective March 8. Stith stated she planned to do pro bono work following her retirement from the court.

Justice Stith joined the Missouri Supreme Court in 2001. She was appointed to the court by Governor Bob Holden (D). Stith was retained by voters in 2002, and again in 2014 for a term that would have expired on December 31, 2026.

Stith’s replacement will be Governor Mike Parson’s (R) first nominee to the seven-member supreme court. Before Stith’s retirement, a Democratic governor appointed four justices on the court and a Republican governor appointed three justices. After Gov. Parson appoints Stith’s replacement, the composition of the court will flip to four justices appointed by a Republican governor and three appointed by a Democratic governor.

Before serving on the state supreme court, Stith served as a judge with the Missouri Court of Appeals from 1994 to 2001. She worked as a private practice attorney from 1980 to 1994. Stith worked as a law clerk for Robert E. Seiler with the Missouri Supreme Court from 1978 to 1979.

Stith earned a B.A. in political science and social psychology from Tufts University in 1975 and her J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center in 1978.

The Missouri Appellate Judicial Commission selects supreme court judges according to the Missouri Plan. When a seat on the court becomes vacant, the commission submits three names to the governor to determine the replacement. After one year on the court, an appointed judge must run in the next general election to retain the seat. After their first retention election, supreme court justices serve 12-year terms and must win their retention elections to remain on the court.

The current chief justice of the court is George Draper, who was appointed by Gov. Jay Nixon (D) in 2012.

The remaining five active justices of the court are:

Zel Fischer – Appointed by Gov. Matt Blunt (R) in 2008

Paul C. Wilson – Appointed by Gov. Jay Nixon (D) in 2012

Mary Rhodes Russell – Appointed by Gov. Bob Holden (D) in 2004

Patricia Breckenridge – Appointed by Gov. Matt Blunt (R) in 2007

Wesley Brent Powell – Appointed by Gov. Eric Greitens (R) in 2017

As of February 5, 2021, there are seven supreme court vacancies in six of the 29 states where replacement justices are appointed instead of elected.

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Sniffen resigns as acting Alaska attorney general

On Jan. 29, acting Alaska Attorney General Ed Sniffen announced his resignation and withdrew his name from consideration for attorney general due to an allegation of sexual misconduct. Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) had appointed Sniffen as attorney general on Jan. 18, but he had not yet been confirmed by the Alaska Legislature. 

Nikki Dougherty White, a former member of a high school mock trial team coached by Sniffen, recently went public with an allegation that she and Sniffen had had a sexual relationship when she was 17 years old. At the request of the governor, the Alaska Department of Law has launched an investigation into possible criminal misconduct by Sniffen.

Sniffen is the second Alaska attorney general to resign in the past year due to allegations of misconduct. He took office in an acting capacity in August 2020 when his predecessor, Kevin Clarkson, resigned after an investigation revealed that he had sent hundreds of unwanted text messages to a junior employee.

Gov. Dunleavy has appointed Treg Taylor as Sniffen’s replacement. Prior to his appointment, Taylor served as deputy attorney general of the civil division at the Alaska Department of Law. He ran in an unsuccessful bid for the Anchorage Assembly in 2016. Taylor will serve in an acting capacity until he has been confirmed.

The attorney general of Alaska is the principal executive officer of the Alaska Department of Law. While the attorney general is an elected position in 43 states and the District of Columbia, it is appointed by the governor in five states, including Alaska. In Alaska, the governor’s nominee must be confirmed by a majority of the members of the legislature in a joint session.

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OIRA reviewed 132 significant rules in January

The White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) reviewed a total of 132 significant regulatory actions issued by federal agencies in January 2021. The agency approved seven rules without changes and approved the intent of 57 rules while recommending changes to their content. Agencies withdrew 67 rules from the review process. One rule was subject to a statutory or judicial deadline.

OIRA reviewed 32 significant regulatory actions in January 2020, 17 significant regulatory actions in January 2019, 20 significant regulatory actions in January 2018, and 87 significant regulatory actions in January 2017. (During the Obama administration from 2009-2016, OIRA reviewed an average of 46 significant regulatory actions each January.)

OIRA has reviewed a total of 132 significant rules in 2021. The agency reviewed a total of 676 significant rules in 2020, 475 significant rules in 2019, 355 significant rules in 2018, and 237 significant rules in 2017.

As of February 1, 2021, OIRA’s website listed 14 regulatory actions under review.

OIRA is responsible for reviewing and coordinating what it deems to be all significant regulatory actions made by federal agencies, with the exception of independent federal agencies. Significant regulatory actions include agency rules that have had or may have a large impact on the economy, environment, public health, or state and local governments and communities. These regulatory actions may also conflict with other regulations or with the priorities of the president.

Every month, Ballotpedia compiles information about regulatory reviews conducted by OIRA. To view this project, visit: 

https://ballotpedia.org/Completed_OIRA_review_of_federal_administrative_agency_rules

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Pennsylvania Secretary of the Commonwealth to resign after error in constitutional amendment process

Pennsylvania Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar (D) is expected to resign on February 5, 2021, after her office failed to advertise a constitutional amendment as the state constitution requires. Voters could have decided the constitutional amendment at the election on May 18, 2021, but the two-session process will need to restart. The earliest the amendment could be referred to the ballot is now May 16, 2023. 

The constitutional amendment would have created a two-year period in which persons can file civil suits arising from childhood sexual abuse that would otherwise be considered outside the statute of limitations. A 2018 grand jury report that investigated child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church recommended the two-year litigation window.

A constitutional amendment must be approved at two successive sessions of the Pennsylvania Legislature. During the 2019-2020 legislative session, both legislative chambers approved the amendment. It was reintroduced during the 2021-2022 session, and the state House re-approved it on January 27. 

The Pennsylvania Constitution (Section 1 of Article XI) required Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar (D) to publish the constitutional amendment in at least two newspapers in each of the state’s 67 counties during each of the three months before the general election following approval in the first legislative session (November 3, 2020). On February 1, 2021, the Pennsylvania Department of State announced that officials did not advertise the constitutional amendment as required. The department’s press released said, “While the department will take every step possible to expedite efforts to move this initiative forward, the failure to advertise the proposed constitutional amendment means the process to amend the constitution must now start from the beginning.” 

Gov. Tom Wolf (D), in announcing Boockvar’s resignation, said, “The delay caused by this human error will be heartbreaking for thousands of survivors of childhood sexual assault, advocates, and legislators, and I join the Department of State in apologizing to you. I share your anger and frustration that this happened, and I stand with you in your fight for justice.” State Rep. Jim Gregory (R-80), one of the amendment’s legislative cosponsors in 2019, responded, “The gravity of this ‘error’ is of the magnitude that the secretary’s resignation will not be enough for the victims. I do not want to believe that this is willful misconduct on the part of someone, but I will need to be shown that is not the case.”

Pennsylvania is not the only state to miss a constitutionally required advertisement period for a constitutional amendment in recent years. In 2019, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate (R) said that his office failed to report two constitutional amendments that the 86th Iowa General Assembly (2017-2018) approved in 2018. This meant those amendments couldn’t go on the 2020 ballot and the process had to start over. One of those amendments, a measure to add a right to firearms to the state constitution, was certified for the 2022 ballot on January 28.

Like the Pennsylvania Constitution, the Iowa Constitution required notifications of the constitutional amendments to be published at least three months before the general election following approval in the first legislative session. Unlike Pennsylvania, the Iowa Constitution doesn’t specify who needs to publish the amendment. Rather, it is set in statute. In response to the error, the Iowa Legislature passed a bill to make the state legislature, rather than the secretary of state, responsible for publishing proposed constitutional amendments passed in one legislative session.

Since the Pennsylvania Constitution specifically requires the secretary of the commonwealth to publish amendments, a constitutional amendment would be needed to pursue a similar policy change as Iowa.

Thirty-six state constitutions have a publication requirement for proposed constitutional amendments. Most require public notice prior to the election at which voters are to decide a constitutional amendment.

In six states (out of 13) with a two-session process for legislatively referred constitutional amendments, there are constitutionally mandated publication requirements in between approval in the first legislative session and the second legislative session. Those states are Iowa, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.

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Federal Register weekly update: Highest weekly presidential document total since 2017

Image of the south facade of the White House.

The Federal Register is a daily journal of federal government activity that includes presidential documents, proposed and final rules, and public notices. It is a common measure of an administration’s regulatory activity.

From January 25 through January 29—the second week of the Biden administration—the Federal Register grew by 790 pages for a year-to-date total of 7,614 pages. During the second week of the Trump administration in 2017, the Federal Register grew by 686 pages for a year-to-date total of 9,342 pages.

The Federal Register hit an all-time high of 95,894 pages in 2016.

This week’s Federal Register featured the following 488 documents:

• 419 notices

• 39 presidential document

• 7 proposed rules

• 23 final rules

President Joe Biden’s (D) 39 presidential documents rank as the highest weekly presidential document total since Ballotpedia began tracking changes to the Federal Register in 2017. President Barack Obama (D) issued 25 presidential documents—the second-highest weekly presidential document total since 2017—during his final week in office in January 2017. Presidential documents include announcements from the Executive Office of the President, such as executive orders, proclamations, and memoranda.

No proposed or final rules were deemed significant under E.O. 12866—defined by the potential to have large impacts on the economy, environment, public health, or state or local governments. Significant actions may also conflict with presidential priorities or other agency rules. The Biden administration has issued one significant proposed rule as of January 29.

Ballotpedia maintains page counts and other information about the Federal Register as part of its Administrative State Project. The project is a neutral, nonpartisan encyclopedic resource that defines and analyzes the administrative state, including its philosophical origins, legal and judicial precedents, and scholarly examinations of its consequences. The project also monitors and reports on measures of federal government activity.

Click here to find more information about weekly additions to the Federal Register in 2019, 2018, and 2017: https://ballotpedia.org/Changes_to_the_Federal_Register

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Click here to find yearly information about additions to the Federal Register from 1936 to 2018: https://ballotpedia.org/Historical_additions_to_the_Federal_Register,_1936-2018



SCOTUS to hear case concerning Fourth Amendment

On Oct. 19, 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) granted review in the case “Lange v. California” for a total of one hour of oral argument during its October Term for 2020-2021. The case originated from the California First District Court of Appeal. “Lange v. California” has not yet been scheduled for argument.

The case:  While Arthur Lange was driving home on the highway in Sonoma, California, California Highway Patrol Officer Aaron Weikert pursued Lange with the intention of conducting a traffic stop. Weikert followed Lange home and activated his overhead lights once Lange pulled into his home’s driveway. Lange pulled into the garage and the garage door began closing behind him. Weikert approached Lange and stopped the garage from closing with his foot. He questioned Lange and asked if Lange knew Weikert was following him. Lange stated that he did not know Weikert was following him. Weikert stated he smelled alcohol on Lange’s breath and charged Lange with driving under the influence.

At trial, Lange claimed that Weikert’s entry into Lange’s home violated the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution since Weikert did not have a warrant to enter Lange’s home, and the court moved to suppress a video recording of the incident. The trial court concluded that the officer had probable cause, denied the motion to suppress, and issued a conviction for Lange. Following that action, a civil court ruled that Lange’s arrest was unlawful, while an appellate court ruled that the arrest was lawful. On appeal to the California First District Court of Appeal, the court affirmed the conviction.

The issue: Whether the pursuit of a person whom a police officer has probable cause to believe has committed a misdemeanor categorically qualifies as an exigent circumstance sufficient to allow the officer to enter a home without a warrant.

The Supreme Court began hearing cases for the term on Oct. 5, 2020. The court’s yearly term begins on the first Monday in October and lasts until the first Monday in October the following year. The court generally releases the majority of its decisions in mid-June.

As of October 19, 2020, the court had agreed to hear 39 cases during its 2020-2021 term. Of those, 12 were originally scheduled for the 2019-2020 term but were delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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