Democratic leader on leave, still pushes for remote access

  • Rep. Renny Cushing, the House Democratic leader, is being treated for stage four prostate cancer. (Amanda Gokee | New Hampshire Bulletin) Amanda Gokee

Associated Press
Published: 3/2/2022 4:21:42 PM

With the 400-member New Hampshire House set to squeeze back into Representatives Hall next week, Democratic lawmakers with serious, worsening health conditions are asking a court to act quickly on their request for remote access.

Six Democrats sued Republican House Speaker Sherm Packard in February 2021 arguing that holding in-person sessions without a remote option during the coronavirus pandemic violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and the state and federal constitutions. The effort has been led by House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing, who has advanced prostate cancer and announced Wednesday that he is taking a temporary medical leave of absence.

“I have fought my entire life for the people of New Hampshire and served in the Legislature for more than 30 years, but for now, I need to focus on a another fight,” Cushing said in a statement.

Though a federal judge quickly denied the Democrats’ request for a preliminary order last year, an appeals court reversed that decision in April. Packard then asked for a rehearing, but the matter appears to have been stalled since then. In the meantime, the health conditions of several plaintiffs have changed in ways that make remote participation even more critical, they wrote in a motion filed this week.

“At least one has had an organ transplant since oral arguments and is now on intense immunosuppressant chemical therapy. At least one has a new diagnosis of stage 4 cancer and has been placed on chemo treatments that severely compromise her immune system,” they wrote. “One plaintiff has contracted COVID-19. And, one plaintiff is currently receiving hospice care.”

In the last two years, the House has met in an ice arena, outside on an athletic field, from cars in a parking lot, at a sports complex and at an expo center. Chairs were spaced at least 6 feet (2 meters) apart, and separate areas were set aside for unmasked lawmakers. That isn’t possible in the House chamber, however, where lawmakers sit shoulder-to-shoulder in adjoining seats.

Packard, who became speaker after former Speaker Dick Hinch died of COVID-19 in December 2020, argues that returning to the State House is appropriate given new public health guidance regarding masks, the availability of vaccines, increased immunity among the general population and overall reduced risk. Advanced air-filtration systems will be in place, and at-home COVID-19 tests will be provided to lawmakers ahead of the four sessions days scheduled for this month.

“We have managed smartly throughout the pandemic with many risk-mitigation measures in place to ensure the peoples’ business continues to get done,” he wrote in the latest House calendar. “We’re now in a different phase of the pandemic, and without some return to normalcy, we risk long-lasting damage to this historic institution and its traditions.”

But Democrats argue it’s the refusal to allow remote participation that will cause lasting damage given that the House has had numerous votes on big issues decided by very small margins. Denying remote access harms not just individual lawmakers but their constituents and the entire state, they wrote, “all of whom may well have to live for years subject to laws enacted by a legislature which effectively denies access to the disabled unless they are willing to risk death to participate.”

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