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Democratic Lawmakers Sue Over GOP Plan For In-Person, Indoor Legislative Session

House Speaker Sherm Packard
Dan Tuohy / NHPR

Democrats in the New Hampshire House want a federal judge to force Republican House Speaker Sherman Packard to allow legislators with serious health conditions to attend next weeks’ House session remotely.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Concord by Democratic Leader Renny Cushing and six other Democratic lawmakers, argues Packard would violate the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, and the state and U.S. constitutions, if he declines to grant lawmakers of fragile health a way to participate in House sessions during the pandemic besides in-person attendance.

“We have been trying for the past couple of months, intensely, to come up with a system that would work, that would allow those that are particularly vulnerable to the pandemic to have a remote option,” Cushing said in an interview. “The Speaker just doesn’t believe in it.”

Last week, Packard announced the House will meet Feb. 24 and 25 at the New Hampshire Sportsplex in Bedford. The 50,000-square-foot space is roughly twice the size of the venue where the House last met inside, the UNH’s Whittemore Center, last year.

In November, the state Supreme Court ruled it constitutional for the House to meet remotely. But Packard and top Republicans have insisted that without a House rule expressly permitting remote meetings, something the GOP has resisted adopting, lawmakers must meet in person.

“We continue to research if a reasonable remote solution exists that will not compromise the operation of the 400 member House of Representatives,” Packard wrote. “A solution that would meet our unique needs has not been identified.”

In a statement Tuesday, Packard said he was reviewing the Democratic lawsuit, and reiterated his plan to meet in Bedford next week. He also defended the House’s past execution of in-person sessions during the pandemic.

“No one contracted COVID-19 at the Whittemore Center indoor events in 2020,” he said.

Packard won election to lead the House in January, after former Speaker Dick Hinch died late last year from COVID, one week after claiming the gavel in an outdoor meeting held on a UNH field hockey pitch.

Several dozen Republicans lawmaker refused to wear masks during that outdoor meeting, and also during sessions at the Whittemore Center, which flouted UNH’s mask-wearing policy and Gov. Chris Sununu’s statewide mask mandate.

More recently, the House met at UNH outside, but in cars, drive-in movie style. Packard has said that approach isn’t feasible in the middle of winter.

Democrats, meanwhile, have continued to push for Republicans to allow some form of remote sessions.

Cushing – who himself has stage 4 cancer – and the other plaintiffs, all who suffer from serious health conditions, aren’t seeking license for any House members to be allowed to participate remotely – just those who qualify for accommodation under the federal ADA.

“Just as we are required to provide wheelchair ramps for people with walking disabilities, so too should we provide remote participation for people who have particular vulnerabilities during the pandemic to COVID,” Cushing said.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
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