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Top legislators’ lawyers defend House rules for remote work

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, oversees a limited floor session on Feb. 4. Temporary rules allowing for remote legislative participation have been targeted by a lawsuit filed by three House Republicans. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – In response to a GOP-backed lawsuit, attorneys for House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, and other top lawmakers argued it’s not the judicial branch’s job to resolve procedural disputes within the Legislature like the one over a rule change allowing remote participation by House members.

In addition, the attorneys argued that the Democratic-controlled House had acted reasonably by passing the temporary rules that permit its 70 members to use online technology to debate and vote on bills – many from outside the Capitol – amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“The risk of an outbreak at the Capitol is a far greater threat to members’ ‘full participating rights’ than allowing members to attend the session via a videoconferencing session,” the court response says.

Three Republican lawmakers filed the lawsuit with the New Mexico Supreme Court on Jan. 30, arguing the House rules violate the state Constitution.

The rules were adopted on a largely party-line vote after the 60-day session got underway, though four Republicans joined Democrats in voting in favor of them – and one Democrat joined the remaining GOP legislators in voting in opposition.

The Supreme Court has not indicated whether it will hear arguments in the case, although it requested that the response be filed by Saturday. It also denied a request for the remote rules to be put on hold pending a resolution of the court challenge.

The 24-page response filed by contract attorneys for Egolf and the Legislative Council, a bipartisan group of top lawmakers, cited legislative data showing that more than 15,000 people watched or participated in legislative proceedings during the first week of the 60-day session.

It also contested the lawsuit’s allegations that the remote participation rules violated the public’s right to due process, pointing out that the Supreme Court last year rejected a challenge to the Legislature’s decision to bar the public and lobbyists from the Roundhouse amid the pandemic.

In large part, the recent GOP lawsuit hinges on the definition of “presence” and whether legislators must physically be in Santa Fe to debate and vote on bills.

The response brief cited court rulings in other states saying remote participation meets the presence requirement, while pointing out that the new House rules allow any member to ask whether there’s a quorum of lawmakers present – online or in person.

It also argued that the Constitution gives each legislative chamber the “exclusive power” to determine how it will function.

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