Judge refuses to order remote access to New Hampshire House

  • Members of the New Hampshire House of Representatives stand for the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of their session in Durham, N.H. on Thursday, June 11, 2020, at the Whittemore Center at the University of New Hampshire. The Legislature, which suspended its work in March because of the COVID-19 virus outbreak, gathered at the arena for the first House session held outside the Statehouse since the Civil War. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

  • New Hampshire's House of Representatives is seen from the Speaker's view in Concord, N.H., Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010. Following Tuesday's elections Republicans have regained the majority of the 400-member body. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) Jim Cole

Monitor staff
Published: 2/22/2021 12:11:54 PM

Rep. Ken Snow has been able to help craft legislation in the Heath and Human Services committee for about a month now, piping min via Zoom connection.

But when the bills come up for a vote this week, he won’t be there.

A federal judge ruled Monday that the New Hampshire House can proceed with in-person sessions this week without providing remote access to medically vulnerable lawmakers like Snow.

Without that remote option, Snow said he can’t risk attending either Wednesday’s or Thursday’s events.

“It would mean that I cannot attend the sessions,” he said of the court ruling Monday.

Seven Democratic lawmakers sued Republican House Speaker Sherm Packard last week arguing that holding in-person sessions without a remote option violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and the state and federal constitutions, and forces them to either risk their lives or abandon their duties as elected officials.

They sought a preliminary order requiring remote access, but U.S. District Court Judge Landya McCafferty denied their request. McCafferty said the speaker can’t be sued for enforcing a House rule that is “closely related to core legislative functions.”

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the 400-member House has met several times at the University of New Hampshire ice arena, outside on a UNH athletic field, and from their cars in a parking lot. A week after getting sworn in, former speaker Dick Hinch died of COVID-19. The sessions scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday will be held at a sports complex in Bedford that offers more space to spread out than the previous facilities, as well as separate entrances for members from opposing parties.

For 81-year-old Snow, steering clear of COVID-19 could be a matter of life or death.

In 2017, Snow, was temporarily paralyzed from the waist down due to Guillain-Barré syndrome, and still has mobility issues and lung problems, which puts him at high risk. He has since overcome his paralysis, but currently lives in Birch Hill retirement community in Manchester, which has strict rules against its residents gathering in groups of 10 or more due to transmission concerns.

So far, Snow has been able to contribute during committee hearings – during which representatives can ask questions of stakeholders during bills, suggest changes, and vote on whether to recommend the bills to the House. But when it comes to the actual vote on the passage of the bills themselves, Snow would need to be present at the Bedford sports complex to vote with the full House.

Snow said he had been in touch with the House Speaker’s office, but said that while they had tried to help, he was not offered a remote option.

“I even offered … ‘well if you let me sit in my car outside … and when it came down to a vote I came to the entrance and you could give me one of those voting meters, I could vote from the entrance and not actually go in,” he said. “And they just said, logistically, that was too difficult to do.”

In a statement reacting to the decision, Packard thanked the federal court “for giving this issue a thorough review” and argued that remote voting would not be possible.

“We were confident in our position that remote participation could not be reasonably accommodated at this time,” Packard said. “We will continue to work with all House members to ensure that if they choose to attend any legislative meeting in person, that they can be confident that we are taking a high degree of precaution, and have extensive health and safety measures in place.”

House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing, meanwhile, said the ruling was a “setback” and charged the speaker’s office with “callous indifference” toward vulnerable House members.

“We have never had any desire to disrupt the function of the House,” Cushing said. “After months of being stonewalled by the Speaker’s Office and House Republicans, we filed this suit to make sure that every single duly elected member of the House, Democrat or Republican, has the ability to represent their constituents without reasonable fear of the health and safety of themselves and their communities.”

For now, Snow is holding onto a glimmer of hope: He received his first dose of vaccine earlier this month and is looking forward to a second shot next week. After two weeks, he may be able to attend in person for future House sessions – depending on whether the medical director at Birch Hill approves, he said.

Snow said he was not interested in “being a rebel” and causing trouble for the Speaker’s office. Still, the experience has been frustrating, he said.

“I’m not trying to be doomsday about it,” he said. “I’m just want to find a way to do my job. That’s all I’m doing.”

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.)

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