The U.S. Supreme Court is refusing to take the appeal made by Democratic lawmakers suing state House Speaker Sherman Packard over the legislature’s COVID-19 restrictions.
The high court rejected the petition for appeal this week as the Democratic lawmakers sought to overturn the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that held Packard (R-Londonderry) is protected by legislative immunity when making House rules, including rules about what COVID precautions to institute.’
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Granite State Democratic legislators have aggressively pushed restrictions, including mask mandates and a demand to allow remote voting. And Democrats have continued that push even after a vaccine became widely available and the data showed mitigation efforts did little to stop the spread of the novel virus and its variants.
After the First Circuit Court ruled against the Democrats earlier this year, their legal team filed the appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court and prepared a new complaint in the lawsuit at the federal court in Concord.
Packard’s office said Wednesday he is reviewing his options after the development with the U.S. Supreme Court noting, “Speaker Packard is reviewing the latest details of this ongoing litigation case with his legal team.”
Democrats have been trying, and failing, to get a court to impose COVID rules on the State House that would allow for remote access for legislators who live with serious health conditions. The new complaint filed this summer claimed former Minority Leader Rep. Robert “Renny” Cushing died as a result of COVID-19.
House Minority Leader Rep. David Cote (D-Nashua) has taken over as lead plaintiff on the lawsuit. Cote, 61, lives with cerebral palsy and has missed at least two years of votes in the House.
Two of the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Cushing and Rep. Katherine Rogers (D-Concord), have died since it was first filed. Both Cushing and Rogers were diagnosed with cancer.
The First Circuit’s ruling found Packard enjoys “legislative immunity” and is exempt from following the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was the original basis for the lawsuit.
The lawsuit stated Cushing contracted COVID-19 and that became a complicating factor that resulted in his death. At the time, Cushing was getting experimental treatment for stage-4 prostate cancer.
The lawsuit contended that since most of the legislators seeking remote access are Democrats, the Republican Speaker used the House rules to gain a partisan advantage.
“The refusal to provide any accommodations is for the purpose of gaining an unfair partisan advantage. Motions to explicitly allow remote attendance have repeatedly been decided on a partisan basis,” the lawsuit states. “In essence, the defendants have deliberately created an extraordinary dilemma for the disabled—they can either place themselves and their families at an extreme risk of death, or they can forego participation in democratic institutions, thus leaving their constituents unrepresented.
“This is really not fundamentally different from pointing a gun to the heads of the individual plaintiffs to block them from entering the House. Given the ready availability of measures to provide reasonable accommodations, the refusal to do so is not only of an extraordinary character but shocks the conscience,” Democrats wrote.
Packard has praised previous rulings that protected the prerogative of elected House leadership to govern the House and its rules.
“This opinion reaffirms the importance of the integrity of the legislature and the legislative process,” Packard said in March when the appeals court sided with the GOP. “Both the First Circuit and District Court evaluated the plaintiffs’ arguments and ruled against them. My next step is to continue working on legislation that will benefit the state of New Hampshire and keep pushing us forward.”
By last March, two years after the pandemic began, most Republican and independent voters had moved past the COVID dread Democrats still embraced, said Spencer Kimball, Emerson College’s Director of Polling.
“I have been looking at COVID restrictions and see a big difference nationally between Democratic voters where 38 percent see COVID as a major health threat, while that number is about 17 percent among independents and 14 percent among Republicans,” Kimball said at the time.
In October 2020, the response to the coronavirus was one of the top three issues on voters’ minds, according to polls. In September of 2022, as the House Democrats continued their appeal, it was tied for 14th on the list of voter concerns.
“Everyday Granite Staters are moving on with their lives, but New Hampshire House Democrats are still supporting mandates, still wearing masks, and apparently still trying to strong-arm the legislature in the court system,” said Rep. Ross Berry (R-Manchester). “Today is a big win for everyone living in 2022, and not trying to litigate 2019.”