Legally Speaking: Legislators Gone Wild

John G. Browning Jan. 14, 2009, 5:10am

With the Texas Legislature going back to work this month in Austin, several readers reminded me that while this column has looked at lawyers and judges behaving badly, it hasn't devoted much space to chronicling the foibles of those who actually make the laws.

However, being a "glass is half-full" kind of guy, I prefer to give thanks for the fact that while they may engage in all manner of political infighting, our legislators usually steer clear of more physical confrontations.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said for their overseas counterparts.

Last year, for example, in the Taiwanese legislature, elected officials let their debate over a budget turn into an outright bench-clearing brawl more evocative of an NHL game than a governmental chamber. People punched each other, climbed onto the speaker's podium, and threw objects around the room, including shoes, microphones, books, and even lunchboxes.

One legislator even took a rather unconventional approach to preventing a bill from being introduced: when his procedural protests failed, he grabbed the paper copy of the proposed legislation and started eating it!

Meanwhile, this past December witnessed similar chaos breaking out in South Korea's National Assembly. Apparently, the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) moved to submit a controversial free trade agreement with the United States to the committee on trade – the next step in getting the bill passed. The committee's meeting chamber was the only place where the bill could be officially introduced.

Invoking a provision allowing the use of force to "keep order" in the parliamentary proceedings, the chairman of the committee (and member of the ruling GNP) had the door sealed. As the television cameras rolled, dozens of opposition members and their aides tried to force their way into the chamber, and soon legislators from both sides were shouting, pushing, shoving and punching each other.

The violence then escalated as opponents used a sledgehammer, an electric saw, and other construction tools in an attempt to open the door. However, GNP members had barricaded the door with furniture, and security guards sprayed fire extinguishers at those trying to force their way in. News-channel cameras showed the struggle in vivid detail, right down to closeups of legislators with blood trickling down their faces.

Ultimately, the opposition's efforts to breach the door failed, and 10 GNP legislators introduced the bill to the committee. Members of the opposition-leading Democratic Party accused the GNP of illegally occupying the parliamentary chamber.

This type of violent clash is actually not that unusual for South Korea's National Assembly. Sometimes the television footage of their very physical debates reminds you of what it would look like if Vince McMahon ran C-SPAN.

Asia isn't the only continent for "legislators gone wild." In September, Australian politician Matt Brown resigned in scandal for "conduct unbecoming to a minister." Brown, a former lawyer and university professor, was not only a member of New South Wales' parliament, but had served as the state housing minister as well.

Local newspapers reported about a raucous party in Brown's Parliament House office to celebrate the budget, at which Brown had allegedly danced in "very brief underpants" to techno music and engaged in "lewd conduct" with a female staffer.

Brown ultimately was sworn in as state police minister, but the scandal followed: only three days after taking office, an "embarrassed" Brown admitted making a "mistake" and resigned at the request of New South Wales Premier Nathan Rees. As Rees stated to Brown, "there are too many reports of you in your underwear for me to ignore."

Brown is hardly the only member of New South Wales' Parliament to get into trouble. MP Andrew Fraser, who was suspended in 2005 for chasing a minister around the parliamentary chamber and grabbing him by the shirt, resigned in December after shoving a female MP, Katrina Hodgkinson, after attending a Christmas party.

The legislators' behavior has gotten to the point that the media and a number of members of Parliament are calling for Australian politicians to submit to breathalyzer testing before voting. Sydney's Daily Telegraph newspaper ran a front-page headline screaming "Breath test this mob," and urged in an editorial "If our politicians are drunk on the job, we've a right to know."

John Kaye, one of the members of Parliament supporting the measure to have the legislators submit to the breath alcohol testing, pointed out "Honestly, if you are going to have breathalyzers for people driving cranes you should have breathalyzers for people writing laws."

Nick Lewocki, an official with Australia's railway workers' union, echoed these sentiments, reasoning that "driving the state is every bit as safety-critical, and decisions our politicians make on issues as diverse as health, education and transport policy do affect public lives."

This approach might just catch on over here in the United States, or at least in New Jersey. The Garden State has no shortage of politicians behaving badly. In 2006, then-Jersey City Councilman Jerramiah Healy was arrested and pepper-sprayed outside a Jersey Shore nightclub in a drunken altercation with local police.

In some states, that kind of scandal would spell the end of a political career, but not New Jersey – Healy is now Jersey City's mayor.

Another Jersey City councilman, Steven Lipski, might be sympathetic. He's sworn off alcohol after what he calls a "deeply humiliating, very embarrassing" incident this past November. In Washington, D.C., to see a Grateful Dead tribute band, the 44-year-old Lipski was arrested after drunkenly urinating on revelers from the nightclub's second floor balcony.

Of course, there are those legislators with drinking problems, and those whose proposals just make you think they have a drinking problem. Louisiana State Representative John LaBruzzo wants to break the "generational welfare cycle" by sterilizing the poor.

Under his proposal, the state would give $1,000 to women on welfare and food stamps if they voluntarily agree to sterilization. The last person to make such a proposal while serving in that state's legislature? Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.

John Browning is a partner in the Dallas office of Gordon & Rees, LLP. He may be contacted at:

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