The judge rejects the Republican legislators’ challenge to the House rule

The judge rejects the Republican legislators’ challenge to the House rule

Rep. Robert Sutherland and five colleagues fought a requirement barring access to the House floor unless they were vaccinated

By Jerry Cornfield • July 11, 2022 3:20 pm

OLYMPIA – In the weeks leading up to the start of the 2022 legislative session, the Democratic majority signed off on a plan to do business in the House of Representatives during the ongoing pandemic.

He required lawmakers to be vaccinated to participate in the floor session and access their offices. It restricted where the public could go. In general, many elements did not sit well with Republicans.

Six of them, including Granite Falls Rep. Robert Sutherland, sued in November, alleging the House plan created “separate and unequal classes of lawmakers” and violated their right to free speech. expression and discrimination laws.

On July 1, their fight ended when Thurston County Superior Court Judge Mary Sue Wilson dismissed the case.

“After nearly 50 lawsuits, we continue our undefeated record defending state COVID-19 policies designed to keep Washingtonians safe,” said Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

The result was not a complete surprise. Much has changed since the time the lawsuit was filed, and the hearing was over when the parties faced off in court, arguing many of the plaintiffs’ points.

“I think the court got where it did because the rules that we challenged had been updated throughout the legislative session,” said Pete Serrano, an attorney with the nonprofit Silent Majority Foundation that represented the lawmakers.

There is no appeal planned.

“We feel good about the fact that the rules have changed over the course of the session,” he said. “We felt like we helped get the ball rolling on those discussions. Should it happen again, we’re well-prepared to argue the issue.”

In September, the House Executive Rules Committee approved an operating plan for the fall months and the 2022 session.

All four Democratic members — Speaker Laurie Jinkins and Reps. Pat Sullivan, Lillian Ortiz-Self and Monica Stonier — voted for it, and three Republican lawmakers — House Minority Leader JT Wilcox and Reps. Joel Kretz and Paul Harris — they opposed it.

The plan required lawmakers to show proof of vaccination to be on the House floor and access their legislative offices.

It also limited the number of lawmakers and staff allowed on the floor at any one time and restricted public access to the chamber and House facilities.

Sutherland and five colleagues sued the four Democratic members of the House, as well as Bernard Dean, the chief secretary of the House, responsible for carrying out the plan. Residents of each Republican legislative district were included as plaintiffs, arguing that as a result of the rules, they were no longer adequately represented in the Legislature.

GOP lawmakers sought an injunction because “we thought the rules were unfair and violated our rights,” Sutherland said. “We didn’t get it.”

So they set out to “document the damage as it happened” during the session, he said.

Sutherland, who was unvaccinated, said he kept track of committee meetings, hearings and votes he missed while working remotely, often due to “spotty Internet service.” The information reached the court.

“We showed an evil and said we wanted to prevent it from happening in the future,” Sutherland said. “The courts made it so we couldn’t get relief even if we could prove harm.”

Meanwhile, as the 60-day session wore on, cases of COVID declined and the Executive Rules Committee eased restrictions to allow more members — those who have been vaccinated — to take the House floor. Access to the public was also made easier.

Dismissing the lawsuit means the House “will retain the ability to govern itself,” said Jinkins, D-Tacoma. “And when we have unexpected circumstances like a pandemic, we can figure out the best way to do people’s jobs.”

The operating rules will be reviewed again before the 2023 session.

Any requirements for members and staff will be developed based on public health data and the ability to keep people safe, Jinkins said.

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Jennifer Ahdout

Jennifer Ahdout

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