Seven Democratic lawmakers sued Republican House Speaker Sherm Packard last week arguing that holding in-person sessions without a remote option violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and the state and federal constitutions, and forces them to either risk their lives or abandon their duties as elected officials.
They sought a preliminary order requiring remote access, but U.S. District Court Judge Landya McCafferty denied their request. Without ruling on the merits of the case, she said the speaker can’t be sued for enforcing a House rule that is “closely related to core legislative functions.”
“While today’s ruling is a setback, history will judge New Hampshire House Democrats favorably for standing for public health and democracy during this pandemic,” said House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing, one of the suit’s plaintiffs. “Unfortunately, this case has exposed the callous indifference of House Republican leadership toward our most vulnerable members during the COVID-19 crisis that has taken the lives of a half a million Americans.”
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the 400-member House has met several times at the University of New Hampshire ice arena, outside on a UNH athletic field, and – after former Speaker Dick Hinch died of COVID-19 – from their cars in a parking lot. The sessions scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday will be held at a sports complex in Bedford that offers more space to spread out than the previous facilities, as well as separate entrances for members from opposing parties.
“We will continue to work with all House members to ensure that if they choose to attend any legislative meeting in person, that they can be confident that we are taking a high degree of precaution, and have extensive health and safety measures in place,” Packard said in a statement.
But Cushing said ruling makes clear that the speaker is “solely to blame for active and obvious exclusion of members of the House.”
“As we teach our children, just because you can do something does not mean you should,” he said.