January 16, 2008
DEFINITION OF SANCTIONS THAT MAY BE IMPOSED ON LEGISLATORS
By: Sandra Norman-Eady, Chief Attorney
You asked if any state legislative chamber charged with disciplining its members for rule or conduct violations defines the sanctions it may impose.
Almost all state constitutions provide that each chamber of the legislature can discipline its respective members. Although the basis for disciplinary action varies, rule or conduct violations are the most common. OLR Report 2007-R-0731 identifies state legislative committees designated to hear and investigate complaints alleging ethical or legislative rule violations and OLR Report 2007-R-0715 summarizes the committees' processes.
Most chambers can reprimand, censure, or expel their respective members. However, some states such as California, Idaho, and Utah also allow them to deny or limit any right or privilege that the violation bears upon. Other states, such as Washington, allow them to impose monetary penalties.
Most states that allow reprimand and censure do not define the terms or describe the conduct that subjects a member to that type of punishment. The exceptions are the (1) California Senate that ranks the sanctions based on seriousness; (2) Missouri House of Representatives that defines the conduct that subjects a member to censure, letter of reproval, or reprimand; (3) New Mexico House of Representatives that generally provides when a member can be expelled and when a reprimand or censure is warranted; and (4) New Mexico Senate that prohibits censured members from holding leadership positions.
If the Senate Committee on Legislative Ethics determines that a violation is serious, it may recommend that the Senate take one of the following actions:
1. deny or limit any right or privilege that the violation bears upon,
2. reprimand a member for a serious violation,
3. censure a member for a more serious violation, or
4. expel a member for a most serious violation (SR 12.3 (k) (3)).
At the completion of a preliminary or investigative hearing, the House Ethics Committee can issue a letter of reproval or recommend that the full House (1) expel, censure, or reprimand a member or (2) take no action (HR 11).
As used in the rules, the following terms have the following meanings:
“Censure” recognizes the respondent's conduct constituted a legal or moral wrong. The punishment must include a denial of privileges of office. The respondent must be present in the chamber when the full House considers and votes on the resolution.
“Reprimand” recognizes the respondent's conduct constituted a legal or moral wrong. The punishment may include a denial of privileges of office. The recommendation for a reprimand is a public record. The speaker issues the reprimand.
“Letter of Reproval” is a sanction that expresses disapproval of conduct based on its appropriateness by a legislator regardless of whether the conduct constitutes a legal or moral wrong. The letter must be included in the committee's report.
In New Mexico, House Rules provide a general statement about expulsion: “While the constitution does not specify the grounds for expulsion, these may include conduct that impugns the integrity of the House, reflects adversely on the House, or otherwise undermines public confidence in the institution of the House…” (House Rule 9-13).
Another New Mexico House Rule elaborates on the types of punishment that can be imposed. Under this rule:
● “a reprimand is normally appropriate for a single, relatively minor act of unethical conduct or disorderly behavior in the presence of the House.”
● “censure is normally the appropriate sanction for more serious or repeated acts of unethical conduct, contempt, or serious disorderly behavior in the presence of the House, although repeated or aggravated violations may merit expulsion. A representative who is censured shall not serve in any leadership position and shall not serve as the chairman or co-chairman of any standing or interim legislative committee for the remainder of that representative's pending term in office. ”
● “the extraordinary power of expulsion generally should be reserved for very serious breaches of legal or ethical responsibilities of members that directly relate to their duties as House members, and that impugn the integrity of the House, reflect adversely on the House, or otherwise undermine public trust in the institution of the House” (House Rule 9-13-6.1).
New Mexico's Senate Ethics Rules address violations of Senate Rule 26-1, which covers conflicts of interest, undue influence, and abuse of office. Under the rules:
● Reprimand is appropriate for violations of Senate Rule 26-1. A reprimand requires a majority vote of those present.
● Censure is appropriate for repeated or flagrant violations of Senate Rule 26-1. A senator who is censured cannot serve in any leadership position or as the chairman or co-chairman of any standing or interim legislative committee for the remainder of that senator's term in office. Censure requires a majority vote of those elected (Senate Rules 9-13-4 and 9-13-5).