Dems sue to let them attend House remotely

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Kevin Landrigan, The New Hampshire Union Leader, Manchester
·3 min read
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Feb. 16—CONCORD — New Hampshire House Democrats are asking a federal judge to order the House speaker to allow lawmakers to attend sessions next week remotely if they are sick or at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.

House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing of Hampton and six other colleagues with serious medical conditions or disabilities accuse Speaker Sherman Packard, R-Londonderry, of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing to accommodate their request to attend the Feb. 24-25 sessions online.

"It would be unjust to allow the Defendant to use his political power to thwart the passage of proposed rules, and then use the absence of those rules as an excuse for denying equal rights to disabled persons," the lawsuit says.

Last week, Packard announced that the House would meet at the NH Sportsplex in Bedford. With 55,000 square feet of space, it's a venue that will ensure members can stay safe by sitting far apart from one another, Packard said.

A preliminary hearing on the lawsuit is set for Friday at U.S. District Court in Concord.

For the past several weeks, House committees have used a hybrid model for public hearings, with legislators either attending in person or remotely.

The state Senate has conducted all of its 2021 work remotely thus far, including business sessions every Thursday morning.

The lawsuit says 44 House members did not attend the last session — which was held Jan. 6, in a parking lot at the University of New Hampshire in Durham — due to medical concerns.

Since then, 28 representatives have asked Packard to give them an accommodation to attend sessions remotely.

"This small number of representatives, all of whom have serious medical disabilities, could easily be accommodated in a Zoom meeting just as the Defendant (Packard) has utilized for committee meetings," the suit said. "Votes could be monitored by a single staff member. The House already has a Zoom license so this accommodation would be simple and inexpensive to implement."

No such rule

Packard said the House has no rule that permits members to attend sessions remotely.

The speaker said all legislators would have to be treated the same, so any remote access would have to extend to all, which the House isn't equipped to do.

In an affidavit filed with the lawsuit, Cushing questions Packard's willingness to find a compromise.

"The Defendant, over the course now of several months, has claimed that he is 'looking into' the possibility of remote participation," Cushing said. "However, there is no evidence that the Defendant has made any concrete steps towards allowing such an option, nor that he is even seriously considering it."

Over the past two months, Democrats have tried to pass a rule to allow lawmakers to attend sessions remotely.

This suit maintains Packard already has the power to make that decision on his own.

Last August, Cushing was diagnosed with Stage 4 prostate cancer that has hospitalized him in Boston four times since then due to infections.

In a legal filing, Cushing said he's been out in public four times since his diagnosis, the last time on Feb. 6 when he had a "window visit" with his mother who was "dying from COVID-19."

Rep. Paul Berch of Westmoreland said he has "extremely critical kidney disease" and is on a waiting list for a transplant.

Rep. Kendall Snow of Manchester said Guillaine-Barre Syndrome has caused paralysis from the chest down.

The other House Democrats signing onto the suit were Reps. David Cote of Nashua, Katherine Rogers of Concord, Charlotte DiLorenzo of Newmarket and Diane Langley of Manchester.

klandrigan@unionleader.com