- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 19, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Does the “demon chipmunk” violate the Mississippi Constitution?

It’s a question the state Supreme Court was asked to consider Tuesday as attorneys argued over a lawsuit that a Democratic lawmaker filed against the Republican speaker of the House.

During the legislative session in the spring, Democrats asked to have bills read aloud in protest because they thought their ideas were being ignored by the Republican supermajority. The state constitution says any legislator can request that any bill be read aloud before it’s passed, and reading has long been used as a filibuster tactic.

Speaker Philip Gunn used a computer voice to read bills, and the voice was set so fast that some lawmakers called it a demon chipmunk - a nickname that came up in court papers and several times during arguments Tuesday.

“I’m not sure what a demon chipmunk sounds like,” Justice Dawn Beam said.

Justices said weeks ago that they would not listen to recordings of the voice. Instead, they are considering whether courts have jurisdiction over how the Legislature operates.

S. Ray Hill III is the attorney for Democratic Rep. Jay Hughes of Oxford, who sued Gunn over the speedy reading. Hill asked justices to rule that Gunn violated the constitution by making the reading incomprehensible.

“He could be playing a recording … of a recipe he has for sweet potato casserole,” Hill said of Gunn. “It could be anything. No one knows what he’s playing.”

Gunn’s attorney, Michael Wallace, said Hughes himself never claimed in the lawsuit that the computer voice was reading something other than bills. Wallace also said legislators can read any bill for themselves on paper or on a state-issued computer, so it isn’t necessary for them to understand a bill when it’s read aloud.

Justice Leslie King, who’s a former House member, asked Wallace what alternative exists to the rapid reading of bills.

“The alternative method that Rep. Hughes wanted was to have words read slowly and distinctly, as I am trying to speak to the court now,” Wallace replied. “That takes a great deal more time than what the speaker was doing.”

Wallace said legislative disputes must be resolved within the House or Senate, not by the courts. He said that in 2001, the state Supreme Court refused to interfere with how then-Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck handled an internal dispute in the Senate.

Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. did not say when the court would rule.


Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: https://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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