CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — The New Hampshire House can proceed with in-person sessions this week without providing remote access to medically vulnerable lawmakers, a federal judge ruled Monday.
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 lawsuit’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.
Lawmakers will sit 10 to 12 feet apart and will be encouraged to remain in their seats. Masks will be mandatory for legislative staff, media and other non-members but only “recommended” for the lawmakers themselves. Similarly, non-members who have recently traveled, have COVID-19 symptoms or have been in close contact with someone with the virus cannot attend, but for lawmakers, staying home under those circumstances is only a recommendation.
There will be separate seating areas for those who choose not to wear masks and for those who are unable to wear masks due to disabilities. A large garage door next to the non-mask-wearing section will be opened to allow maximum air flow.
“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 the 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.
Nearly 70,000 people have tested positive for the virus in New Hampshire, including 252 cases announced Monday. The number of deaths stood at 1,154.
The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in New Hampshire has decreased over the past two weeks, going from 383 new cases per day on Feb. 7 to 375 new cases per day on Sunday.