Oregon voters may decide to toss constitutional ban on duels

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - The Oregon Legislature may have an unusual request for voters in the next general election that harkens back to that fateful summer day in 1804 when a bitter rivalry between U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr and the nation's first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, was settled with a fatal gunshot.

Should ongoing discussions in Salem materialize, voters would see a question on their general-election ballots asking if a 172-year-old ban on dueling by public officials - as in, the old-fashioned way of resolving fights - should be erased from the Oregon Constitution.

The constitutional ban in question is Article II, Section 9, which says anyone who offers, accepts, knowingly participates in a "challenge to fight a duel ... or who shall agree to go out of the State to fight a duel, shall be ineligible to any office of trust, or profit." (this is exact language from the constitution)

The article was signed into law just 30 minutes after its drafting by the second provisional legislature in 1845, almost 15 years before Oregon's statehood, when squabbles were still often resolved by duel even decades after Hamilton's death on the opposite side of the country.

"They decided that it would not be very civil if two members of the Legislature disagreed and then shot each other on the front steps of the provisional capitol," Republican Sen. Brian Boquist said Wednesday during the proposal's first committee hearing.

Today though, says Boquist, chief sponsor of the proposal, it's an archaic rule that's unnecessary for obvious reasons in modern times.

But, like any change to the constitution, repealing it must be approved by Oregon voters.

Because this particular constitutional change is being proposed by lawmakers, rather than citizens, it must first go through the Legislature's approval process like any other bill. If it passes both chambers, the measure will then be referred to voters, rather than the governor, for the final say.

The proposed repeal of Oregon's old ban on dueling would appear on voter ballots as Senate Joint Resolution 44, or SJR 44.

During this week's hearing, Boquist testified that the article is certainly not the only constitutional provision that would surprise modern-day Oregonians.

"I want you to know that most of your stationery is probably in violation of the law because we have a constitutional clause as to how we can use our stationery," Boquist informed the committee.

He acknowledged the best option would be to tackle all of these constitutional issues at once, rather than piece-by-piece as his proposal would do. The state's constitution still makes references to, for instance, slavery and titles of family nobility, he said, while various amendments over the years sometimes cause contradictions between sections that could become problematic.

"We also do not have a balanced-budget amendment, contrary to popular belief," Boquist said. "The problem with ignoring all those things is that eventually they catch up to us."

Democratic Sen. Ginny Burdick, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, kicked off the discussion by jokingly calling it "the bill I've been waiting all session for."

She later wrapped up the talks with another touch of humor. "Well, I'm deeply disappointed that the ambitions for this bill are bigger than dueling, because I was all set to go," Burdick chuckled.

The sole public testimony came from Dan Meek, a Portland attorney and Oregon Progressive Party spokesman, who opposes Boquist's proposal for two reasons.

"This resolution would allow the candidacies of persons who give or accept challenges to fight duels," Meek wrote to the committee. "Also, there is a cost to removing obviously unenforced and unenforceable provisions in the Oregon Constitution, including the cost of processing and printing this resolution on millions of ballots and processing the results."

State revenue officials concur, adding that such costs - the amounts of which are unknown until election year - would be rolled into the state's expenses for administering elections.

All proposals, including SJR 44, have until April 18 to clear out of their initial policy committees or be referred to a special committee, such as ways and means, or they will fail.

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