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The Independence Of the Unicameral And The Judiciary Are Hanging By A Thread

George W. Norris established a unicameral, non-partisan legislature so that Nebraska could avoid the poisonous partisanship of Washington and our senators could govern in a responsible manner. For eighty years, the Nebraska Unicameral has largely lived up to Norris’ vision and has served as a beacon to the rest of the country. When Nebraska state senators attend meetings with legislators from other states, the representatives from our sister states marvel at our system and envy it.

Nebraska’s unique and widely envied non-partisan legislature is under attack now and has never been more threatened by Pete Ricketts and his right wing allies. During the 2016 campaign, Ricketts poured hundreds of thousands of his own dollars into legislative races across the state aimed at ousting both Democratic and moderate Republican state senators. Ricketts did succeed in replacing three moderate Republicans with extremists and made for a more polarized legislature.

Before the legislative session began, 27 right wing senators met in secret and hatched a scheme to install right wing Republican Senators in most or all of the leadership positions. This back room deal was largely a success since Republican senators now hold all but two of the fourteen committee chairs. However, this partisan power play alienated the senators who weren’t part of the secret cabal and set a negative tone for the rest of the session.

One of the first actions the radical right wing bloc took was to re-direct bills to committees which are stacked with conservatives. For example, gun bills are normally assigned to the Judiciary Committee — but that committee has a moderate majority. Instead, a bill that would gut reasonable, common sense restrictions on guns passed by city and county governments was assigned to the Government Committee where it has a better chance to be advanced to the floor.

The most egregious and controversial committee reassignment involved a bill that would end an important non-partisan feature in Nebraska’s judicial selection process. This system has given Nebraska a high caliber judiciary for decades. Instead, under this bill (LB644), Ricketts would have complete control over the selection of judges and would be able to pack the judiciary with activist judges with an agenda. Like the gun bill, the judicial selection bill was steered from the Judiciary Committee to the Government Committee.

Many of the same conservatives who want to turn over the judicial branch to Ricketts also supported the ouster of the sexist, racist and homophobic Bill Kintner. The senator from LD2 was a loyal member of the conservative bloc and a strong supporter of Ricketts but he became an embarrassment to the right wingers and had to go. Kintner’s status was using up valuable floor time and he had become an unneeded distraction to the right wing.

Many of the same conservative senators who supported the ouster of Kintner have now targeted Ernie Chambers. The Omaha senator’s residency in his district has been challenged and a special committee has been assigned to investigate it. Ricketts and his right wing bloc would like to remove Chambers since he has the energy and the determination to filibuster their regressive agenda. Getting Chambers out of the legislature would make life a lot easier for its right wing.

The filibuster rule itself has come under attack from the right wing. Currently, the rules require 33 senators to end a filibuster and force a vote. However, the conservative senators would like to lower the threshold to end debate to 30 votes. In response, a coalition of Democratic senators, one independent and some moderate Republicans have stood up to the right wing’s effort to shut down the minority.

A legislative insider speaking to me on background said that the rules allow a filibuster of any rules changes and the Democratic senators will keep talking until the right wing gives up. He told me that they will not back down from their defense of the filibuster rule even if the only thing the legislature accomplishes is the mandatory passage of the state budget. This well connected individual told me that it is past time for the conservative Republicans to drop the rules fight and do the business of the voters.

At the present time, the very independence of the legislature and the judiciary are hanging by a thread. If Ricketts and his radical right wing allies get their way, Nebraska will go the way of Kansas. The radical right will pass big tax cuts for the wealthy even though the state has a $900 million budget deficit. This kind of agenda would result in deep cuts to schools, the university system, roads and the disabled.

I would request that everybody call your state senator and recommend that they drop this attempt to gut the filibuster rule and get back to representing the people of Nebraska. I would also ask you to tell your senators to vote against LB 644 which would turn over the judiciary lock, stock and barrel to Ricketts.

My sources at the legislature tell me this a fight that we can win. The Democratic state senators are very, very determined to preserve our non-partisan legislature and Nebraska’s good life. Now let’s get it done! We can do this! Thank you for all that you do!

I’m a trial lawyer, a Democratic activist and a sports fan.

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