CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A federal judge heard arguments Friday on whether medically vulnerable lawmakers should be given remote access to the New Hampshire House sessions next week or whether separate entrances for Democrats and Republicans and other safety measures would suffice.
Seven Democratic lawmakers sued Republican House Speaker Sherm Packard earlier this week arguing that holding in-person sessions without a remote option violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and the state and federal constitutions. It also forces them to choose between risking their lives and not performing their duties as elected officials, attorney Paul Twomey said at a hearing Friday.
If all 28 lawmakers with medical disabilities stayed home, nearly 100,000 residents across the state would lose representation, he said.
“We think no matter how you look at it, if people chose to take the risk of attending or choose not to attend, they suffer harm. It’s real harm and it’s serious harm,” Twomey said.
Since last March, the 400-member House has met several times at the University of New Hampshire ice arena, outside on a UNH athletic field, and 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.
Republican House leaders have said fully remote sessions are not possible because no rules exist to allow it, while blocking attempts to create such rules. But the Senate has been meeting remotely without an explicit rule, and the House has been holding “hybrid” committee hearings that allow for remote participation.
Senior Assistant Attorney General Anthony Galdieri, representing Packard, said the judge should not order the House to accommodate the Democrats remotely because lawmakers are protected from such lawsuits. He also argued that Democrats have failed to prove that they are seeking accommodations that are both reasonable and feasible.
“To put such a plan in place is going to take a lot of coordination, it’s going to take a lot of logistics and technology and it’s going to take practice and planning and training,” he said. “Right now, we’re very much against the clock without time to plan, practice and test without knowing what’s going to work and what’s not going to work.”
Though Galdieri suggested Democrats could have filed their lawsuit in early January instead of waiting until this week, Twomey said they had repeatedly presented ideas to Packard, who told them to hold off on a lawsuit if they wanted to keep discussing the matter.
Judge Landya McCafferty gave the parties until Saturday night to provide more background material.
In other coronavirus developments:
Gov. Chris Sununu has blamed teachers unions for delaying the return of students to classrooms during the coronavirus pandemic, but most of the schools that remain completely closed are charter schools where unions have no role.
Sununu issued an executive order Friday requiring that all schools begin offering in-person instruction to all students at least two days a week starting March 8.
According to the Department of Education, there are eight schools serving about 1,500 students where all instruction remains remote. Five of them are charter schools, along with two elementary schools and a middle school in Somersworth, according to the department.
However, a member of the Somersworth School Board said Friday that students in some grades have been attending in-person classes, with three more grades being added March 1 and the final grade on March 15.
“I’m glad to hear the governor make a statement, that’s helpful. But it’s probably not going to impact our plans in Somersworth because we put a plan together and we’re sticking to it,” said school board member and Democratic state Rep. Gerri Cannon. “We’ll meet those dates, but we were planning to meet those dates before the governor said anything.”
The education department also listed eight other schools that currently offer in-person instruction to only special education and at-risk students, including three charter schools, the high school in Somersworth and the middle and high schools in Dover. But in both Somersworth and Dover, schools already have begun having other students return in phases. In Dover, the school board had approved a plan earlier this month to have a hybrid option for all students starting March 15.
The executive order allows schools to return to remote learning for 48 hours if necessary due to COVID-19 infections. After that, state approval would be required.
More than 72,000 people have tested positive for the virus in New Hampshire, including 379 cases announced Friday. Two additional deaths were reported, bringing the total to 1,152.
The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in New Hampshire decreased over the past two weeks, going from 408 new cases per day on Feb. 4 to 398 new cases per day on Thursday.