Ethics panel mulls GOP complaint that Dems committed ‘insurrection’ by protesting on the floor

Rep. Barbara Parker, R-Mesa, testifies before the House Ethics Committee on May 15, 2024, in support of her complaint against Democratic Reps. Oscar De Los Santos and Analise Ortiz. Parker and other Republicans accused the Democrats of inciting an "insurrection" and a "riot" on the House floor on April 10 when they protested the chamber's failure to take up legislation to repeal a near-total abortion ban by yelling at their GOP colleagues. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

During a contentious hourlong ethics committee hearing, Republican lawmakers on Wednesday accused two Democrats who protested on the floor of the state House of Representatives last month after their GOP colleagues avoided repealing a century old abortion law of inciting a riot and making others fear for their safety. 

Rep. Barbara Parker, R-Mesa, one of the authors of the complaint against the Democrats, told the House Ethics Committee panel that she was concerned about violence breaking out on April 10. On that day, shortly after the GOP majority decided to delay voting on whether to strike down a near-total abortion ban from 1864, Democratic Reps. Oscar De Los Santos and Analise Ortiz led their party in loudly excoriating Republicans, shouting “Blood on your hands!” and “Save women’s lives!” while advancing towards and pointing at lawmakers across the aisle as they quickly exited through a side door. 

“With the neck veins that were popping out, the red flushed faces, the straining and the screaming — and you can see where De Los Santos even struck one of the desks,” Parker said, referencing video footage of the outburst. “I thought, ‘They’re going to lose it. This is going to get out of control.’” 

On April 9, the Arizona Supreme Court reinstated a near-total abortion ban from 1864. The decision upended the political landscape in the state and led to weeks of turmoil as Democrats in the state legislature pushed to repeal the law. With the support of a handful of Republican lawmakers, that effort was finally successful on May 1, when the Arizona Senate voted to repeal the law

Just a week earlier, on April 24, the Arizona House of Representatives voted to eliminate the law. That same day, a trio of anti-abortion lawmakers who voted against the repeal filed ethics complaints against De Los Santos and Ortiz for their vocal protest after the first failed attempt. The complaints against the two Democrats accused them of disorderly behavior and violating the legislative rules governing debate, and likened their actions to an “insurrection” and a “riot.”

Parker told lawmakers on the Ethics Committee that her view of the chamber was irreparably damaged by the display from De Los Santos and Ortiz, and said that their actions “demeaned” the work of all the chamber’s members. 

“That feeling that is in that room, of a hall that has respect and dignity — that is shattered for me. That feeling of peace is now gone,” she said.  

Only Parker testified against De Los Santos and Ortiz, who chose not to attend the hearing but were instead represented by their attorney, Jim Barton. Several cellphone videos of the April 10 protest were shown as evidence of the events, one of which was filmed by a member of the audience in the gallery and another that was taken by Ortiz herself and later posted to TikTok. 

In a video that appears to have been taken at the desk of Rep. Jacqueline Parker, a Mesa Republican and Barbara Parker’s daughter, who also filed the complaint against the two Democrats, Republican lawmakers can be observed packing up their belongings and exiting out of frame. 

Rep. David Livingston, R-Peoria, who made the motion to delay the repeal vote that angered Democrats on April 10, walks by at one point and can be heard saying: “Let’s go, we’re adjourned, let’s go, guys.” 

Another video submitted as evidence didn’t include any images of the House floor but is instead a narration of what occurred from the point of view of Cathi Herrod, the president of the anti-abortion Center for Arizona Policy. The organization has been the driving force behind many of Arizona’s restrictive abortion laws and advocated strongly for preserving the 1864 near-total ban. 

Also shown at the hearing were screenshots of posts on social media site X, formerly Twitter, written by Ortiz and De Los Santos shortly after the complaints against them were publicized, in which the two blasted Republicans and raised money for their legal defense and reelection bids. 

“@RepAnaliseOrtiz & I held the line against the extreme 1864 total ban on abortion. Now, MAGA Republicans are retaliating by filing meritless ethics complaints against us. Please donate to cover our legal fees & ensure we are both re-elected,” wrote De Los Santos in one post.

Republicans on the House Ethics Committee sharply criticized De Los Santos and Ortiz for not attending the hearing, though the chamber’s rules say that subjects of ethics investigations are not required to attend. It isn’t the first time someone has skipped a hearing either; Rep. Stephanie Stahl-Hamilton, who was censured last year for hiding Bibles in an investigation that was widely regarded as retaliation for spearheading a complaint against a Republican lawmaker that ended in an expulsion, also chose to only be represented by her lawyers

Despite that, Chairman Joseph Chaplik, R-Scottsdale, led a motion to change the ethics committee’s rules from voluntary to mandatory attendance. It’s unclear, however, whether the rule change will force De Los Santos and Ortiz to attend, as the hearing has already occurred. Unless more hearings in the investigation are held, the rule change will likely only affect future complaints. 

Chaplik added that he would be willing to subpoena the two Democrats. 

House Speaker Pro Tem Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, who presided over the April 10 floor session, grilled Barton on whether he believed the actions of De Los Santos and Ortiz rose to the threshold of disorderly behavior, and on whether such actions would merit punishment in a courtroom. Barton rebutted that concluding whether the protest constituted disorderly conduct was up to the committee, but added that he didn’t perceive the Democratic protest to be threatening. 

“I think it was certainly not a safety concern. I don’t think it was riotous or insurrectionist,” Barton said. “I think it was loud, and I think it probably made people in the room feel uncomfortable. But whether making people feel uncomfortable satisfies the definition of disorderly I will respectfully leave for the committee to decide.” 

Chaplik dismissed arguments that De Los Santos and Ortiz were simply reacting passionately, saying that lawmakers are passionate about many proposals and that the chamber’s rules exist to bar the kind of “chaos” that occurred on April 10. He read aloud from a list of historical events in which debates among lawmakers across the country ended in violence, including stabbings and fights. 

“This is what we’re trying to avoid here, in the Arizona House of Representatives, and I felt, personally, watching this and witnessing it that we were pretty close to that,” Chaplik said.

Rep. Patty Contreras, D-Phoenix, later questioned Barton on whether Ortiz or De Los Santos were carrying weapons. Barton confirmed that they were not. 

Also at issue on Wednesday was an impromptu press gaggle that the two Democrats interrupted on April 10. Shortly after the GOP majority voted to take a break rather than vote to repeal the 1864 law, reporters gathered around Rep. Matt Gress, a Phoenix Republican who had unsuccessfully made the first attempt to repeal the law. 

Ortiz and De Los Santos quickly led a handful of Democrats across the chamber to disrupt journalists’ conversations with Gress, accusing him of not caring if women died and calling him a liar because he has previously sponsored fetal personhood laws. They also accused him of siding with his party that day to delay a vote on repealing the 1864 law. 

Despite the event making up a large part of the complaint against the two Democrats, Gress did not testify in the hearing, nor did he respond to multiple requests for comment on whether he felt the ethics complaint was warranted or if he felt threatened or offended. 

Chaplik questioned Barton on why Democrats insulted Gress, when he had supported their bid to repeal the 1864 law. 

“Rep. Gress made a motion to actually repeal the ban. He should have been on the side of the Democrats, yet they attacked him and called him ‘liar.’ Why would they call him a liar?” he asked. 

Barton noted that the video evidence made clear the reasoning behind Ortiz and De Los Santos’ criticism. In Ortiz’s own TikTok video, she can be heard explaining why she believed Gress to be insincere in his support for the repeal.

“They called him a liar because they felt that he was taking advantage of the press and letting them see one thing when, in fact, he had done other things,” Barton said. 

But Chaplik was unsatisfied with that answer, dismissing it as Barton’s opinion. 

Contreras pointed out that, in the videos of the interrupted press conference, Gress did not appear to be frightened or intimidated, even as he was the focus of intense vocal criticism from De Los Santos and Ortiz. Chaplik rebutted that such a conclusion couldn’t be arrived at without speaking to Gress himself. 

Republicans on the committee were also unimpressed with Barton’s lack of apology on behalf of his clients. De Los Santos and Ortiz are not embarrassed by their actions and they continue to stand by their conduct, Barton said. 

“I’ve been here, on and off, for 30 years. I’ve never seen this behavior on the floor of the House. The floor of the House is a respectable place, very similar to a courtroom. If this behavior was in a courtroom, you’d be upheld in contempt, I’m sure,” Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, told Barton. “I don’t hear any apology, I don’t hear, ‘It won’t happen again.’”

In his closing remarks, Barton urged lawmakers to keep in mind the impact their decision could have on constraining the free speech rights of House members. By accusing Ortiz and De Los Santos of inciting a riot and heading an insurrection, the chamber threatens to equate violent actions with criticism that, at its worst, Barton said, makes its subjects feel uncomfortable. 

“There is a problem that we have in America right now of people saying that they don’t feel safe when they feel challenged,” he said. “And I think it’s an opportunity for the committee to say: ‘That’s not the way it works. When you feel challenged, even if you feel uncomfortable, even if you feel disrespected, that doesn’t mean you feel unsafe.’” 

Chaplik responded that there are times when it is proper for debate to occur, and rules must be respected. 

“We have opportunities for them to speak, we have opportunities for them to explain their vote. What we’re trying to avoid is an altercation on the House floor that gets dangerous,” he said. 

The committee didn’t issue a conclusion on Wednesday. But while a report could come any day, the committee is only able to offer a recommendation for the entire House of Representatives to vote on. And while a formal censure only requires a majority vote, a move to expel either De Los Santos or Ortiz would be a political impossibility; doing so requires a supermajority vote, necessitating support from Democrats. 

In any case, the earliest the House can take action against the duo is June 4, as the chamber is on a break until then. 

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