NH Democrats sue Republicans over COVID risks in House hearings

The New Hampshire Democratic Party has filed a federal lawsuit against the New Hampshire House of Representatives as well as the state of New Hampshire, alleging the House Republican leader’s refusal to hold online hearings put lawmakers’ lives in danger.

The lawsuit, filed June 15, cites the recent deaths of former House Minority Speaker Robert “Renny” Cushing and state Rep. Katherine Rogers, both Democrats, with strong implications that the hearings in person held by the House were to blame for their deaths. .

Specific to Cushing’s death, the lawsuit says the 69-year-old was battling advanced prostate cancer when he “reluctantly attended” a House session on January 6 and in doing so was “exposed to multiple life-threatening interactions with others”.

“Presence in person presented a clear life-threatening danger to plaintiff Cushing from the time this motion was filed until his death,” the suit states.

Specific to Rogers, who had also fought a battle with cancer before her death, the lawsuit says that just before her death, the 67-year-old spoke of the immense dangers of attending legislative hearings in person and that she had scared when she learned that a House member she was sitting next to had recently tested positive for COVID-19.

“Regardless of direct causation, it is clear that the defendants’ refusal to authorize telecare accommodation placed her in a position where she unfairly had to choose between her life and her obligations to her constituents.”

Cushing and Rogers, who died in March and April respectively, were among six Democrats who filed a similar lawsuit last year against House Speaker Sherman Packard. They sought an emergency injunction against in-person attendance at House hearings, but a federal court denied the request.

State Rep. David Cote, a Democrat, led the filing of the new lawsuit, which seeks a temporary injunction that would allow lawmakers with health issues to attend future House hearings remotely.

Cote, who replaced Cushing as House Minority Leader following Cushing’s March 7 death, was also a party to the original lawsuit. He suffers from cerebral palsy and recently told The Epoch Times that he suffered from coronary heart disease, which combined made his health too fragile to risk attending House hearings.

Cote told The Epoch Times the lawsuit was not intended to hold anyone accountable for Cushing and Roger’s deaths, but to end dangerous in-person hearings.

He largely blames Packard for refusing to hold full hearings remotely. Côté pointed out that the NH Senate has held hearings remotely and that several legislative committees have held and continue to offer live hearings online.

“Under the previous speaker, a Democratic speaker, the House had sought and obtained an opinion from the Supreme Court of New Hampshire that it was constitutionally possible for the House to meet remotely,” Côté said, “then — then came the November elections and we lost the majority.

Democrat Steve Shurtleff served as Speaker of the House until the 2020 election returned control of the 400-member NH House to Republicans. Republican Dick Hinch was named Speaker of the House but died just nine days later of COVID-19.

Packard replaced him and refused to institute mask mandates and any social distancing requirements.

He also rejected Democrats’ request for House members to attend hearings remotely, saying it would be unconstitutional.

Packard did not respond to Epoch Times requests for comment on the pending lawsuit. In response to last year’s lawsuit, Packard released a statement saying he had “statutory immunity.”

In response to the state’s comments, Michael Garrity, director of communications and legislative affairs for the NH Department of Justice, released a statement to The Epoch Times saying that the state of NH “disputes numerous allegations and characterizations” in the complaint and is preparing its response to the legal action.

By contrast, the US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division filed a 29-page brief in support of the complaint, siding with Democrats and accusing House Republicans of violating labor laws. disability. The DOJ also argues in its brief that Packard’s statutory immunity does not apply, “because the state, which is the true interested party, cannot claim it.”

In addition to Cote and the NH Democratic Party, House Democrats Kendall Snow, Paul Berch, Diane Langley and Charlotte DiLorenzo are also named plaintiffs in the complaint. The combination describes various conditions ranging from rheumatoid arthritis to severe kidney disease. According to the suit, for example, Snow is 81, lives in a nursing home, and suffers from respiratory issues due to a 2017 bout with Guillain-Barré syndrome.

DiLorenzo, 71, is identified in the lawsuit as African American and is therefore at “significantly increased risk of being infected” with COVID. He notes that she suffers from such severe asthma that “due to the car fumes produced by the large number of vehicles” in the parking lot outside a House session, she had an asthma attack and had to leave early.

The lawsuit also names NH House clerk Paul Smith as a defendant, saying he is responsible because he played a role in passing the House’s pandemic policies.

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Alice Giordano is a former news correspondent for the Boston Globe, the Associated Press and the New England bureau of the New York Times.

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