JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (March 1, 2019) — As a freshman legislator, I see and experience new things almost every day I’m in Jefferson City. This week, I witnessed my first protracted filibuster. The Missouri Senate went into session at 2 o’clock Tuesday afternoon and did not gavel out again until 6 a.m. Wednesday. Anyone who thought they had finished pulling all-nighters when they left college has not been a member of the General Assembly.
The term filibuster comes from a Spanish word that describes a boat with a large main sail. The origin of the word doesn’t have anything to do with passing laws, but it fits in a way. There sure is a lot of air moving when the Senate engages in a filibuster.
During a filibuster, legislators opposed to a particular piece of legislation start talking and they don’t stop. Sometimes, the intent is to talk the bill to death. By maintaining control of the debate, senators can ensure that a bill does not get a vote. Other times, it’s a stalling tactic to allow negotiations to take place off the floor. That’s what happened this week in the Missouri Senate.
Senate Bill 7, the legislation that prompted the marathon session, deals with civil lawsuits, specifically who could join into a suit and where those cases can be heard. These issues, known as “joinder and venue,” are important because Missouri has become a magnet for lawsuits. An extraordinary number of cases are filed in St. Louis every year. Many of these lawsuits don’t have much, if anything, to do with Missourians. Out-of-state attorneys come here because they believe they will find a more sympathetic jury in our state.
The bill’s sponsor says that out of 13,000 plaintiffs involved in multi-party lawsuits in St. Louis last year, fewer than 1,000 of these people were actually Missourians. Only about 240 lived in St. Louis. Proponents of the bill argue that venue shopping clogs Missouri’s courts and cost taxpayers money, without producing any benefit for the citizens of our state.
Soon after SB 7 was taken up for perfection Tuesday afternoon, senators opposed to the bill were recognized for an inquiry and proceeded to ping-pong discussion among like-minded lawmakers for the next 14 hours. When I say discussion, I don’t necessarily mean they talked about the bill. Senators participating in the filibuster discussed song lyrics, talked about their favorite sports teams and reminisced about hunting trips. The “debate” wouldn’t have made much sense to anyone who wandered into the Senate gallery, but work was actually being accomplished behind the scenes.
Shortly after 6 a.m. Wednesday morning, the minority party yielded the floor and a substitute bill was offered for a vote. With a compromise reached, senators approved that measure and headed home to get some sleep.
Passing laws is not always a pretty process. There are honest disagreements about policies and differing views about how to achieve a desired result. The filibuster may seem like a strange practice, but it does serve a purpose. At no time during the long night of wrangling in Jefferson City were any harsh words spoken in the Senate chamber. The hours of banter between legislators bought time for details to be worked out and compromises reached.
One side had an idea. The other side opposed it. They talked and talked. When they were done talking, they had an agreement. No, it’s not pretty, but sometimes it works.
It’s my honor to serve as your senator for the 16th District. If you have questions or need any assistance, please call my office at 573-751-5713 or log onto my webpage at https://www.senate.mo.gov/brown for more information.