WASHINGTON – A federal judge on Thursday tossed out a Republican-led lawsuit aiming to halt an unprecedented proxy voting system established by the House of Representatives due to the coronavirus pandemic, ruling that the House was immune from such a legal challenge.
The lawsuit, filed in federal district court in the District of Columbia by nearly two dozen House Republicans – led by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. – in late May, argued the proxy voting rules violated the U.S. Constitution because under the Constitution, a majority of lawmakers must be present to take up business and vote on legislation. The suit specifically targets House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., along with the House clerk and sergeant-at-arms.
U.S. District Judge Rudolph Cortreras wrote in an 18-page opinion dismissing the lawsuit that the House “unquestionably has the authority, under the Constitution, to ‘determine the Rules of its Proceedings,’ ” even though proxy voting had never before been used in the chamber as it is now.
“The Court can conceive of few other actions, besides actually debating, speaking, or voting, that could more accurately be described as ‘legislative’ than the regulation of how votes may be cast,” Cortreras wrote before concluding the defendants were “immune” from such lawsuits due to the Speech or Debate clause in the U.S. Constitution, which has been used to shield members of Congress from lawsuits over speeches, debates and legislative acts.
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Surrounded by fellow House Republican members, House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks during a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol, May 27, 2020 in Washington, DC. Calling it unconstitutional, Republican leaders have filed a lawsuit against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and congressional officials in an effort to block the House of Representatives from using a proxy voting system to allow for remote voting during the coronavirus pandemic.
The House GOP officially moved to appeal the decision Friday.
McCarthy said in a statement the “decision will not deter us from continuing to work to protect the voice and representation of the American people.” .
“There is a history of challenges against unlawful actions taken by the U.S. House of Representatives, which show that unconstitutional actions are not protected by speech or debate,” he said. “While Congress does write its own procedural rules – and we should – we cannot write rules that violate the Constitution.”
The dismissal was welcomed by Pelosi, who said she hoped it would be the end of the GOP’s “sad” effort to halt the proxy rules.
“Remote voting by proxy is fully consistent with the Constitution and more than a century of legal precedent, including Supreme Court cases, that make clear that the House can determine its own rules,” the California Democrat said in a statement. “The nation is in the middle of a dangerous pandemic and the House of Representatives must continue to work.”
She continued: “The dismissal of the House GOP lawsuit is welcome news and hopefully the end of this sad Republican effort to obstruct the House from meeting the needs of the American people during the coronavirus crisis.”
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The House developed and passed its historic proxy voting rules in May as the number of COVID-19 cases continued to rise –including within the halls of the U.S. Capitol. It allowed members unable to come to Capitol Hill during the coronavirus pandemic to designate another lawmaker as their “proxy” and cast floor votes on their behalf.
The goal was to allow lawmakers to have a voice if they could not travel to Washington safely. The change came after the House passed a number of coronavirus packages that amounted to about $3 trillion, bills on which most lawmakers did not have much of a say in negotiations.
But Republicans argued that any measure passed under this system, especially those that pass by slim margins in which proxies cast deciding votes, could be called into question and lead to a domino effect for years to come.
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Proxy voting has been utilized largely by Democratic lawmakers, though Florida Republican Rep. Francis Rooney voted by proxy last month after a fellow Republican, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, tested positive for the virus. Gohmert had been known for violating social distancing rules and would frequently be spotted without a face mask in the U.S. Capitol and its office buildings.
“As I have said before, Congress should utilize modern technology to permit remote voting. While I wanted to proxy vote as soon as the Speaker set it up, I agreed to wait until the lawsuit challenging its legality had been heard, which has now happened,” Rooney, who is retiring, wrote on Twitter after the proxy vote.
He continued: “Votes have been occurring remotely for several months now, with no adverse consequences. Given the recent COVID-19 positive test results for my colleagues, including Louie Gohmert today, this method of voting is the prudent and rational course of action.”
House Majority Leader Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said in a statement: “Today, a federal court affirmed what was already clear from our Constitution: the House has the right to determine its own rules, including the allowance of proxy voting as an emergency measure during this pandemic.
“I hope House Republicans will now join Democrats in using this measure, when necessary, so that Congress can continue to do its work while preventing the spread of COVID-19 in our districts and on Capitol Hill.”
Contributing: Savannah Behrmann
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19: GOP appeals after Judge tosses lawsuit over House proxy voting