WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Thursday dismissed a suit filed by congressional Republicans against Speaker Nancy Pelosi that sought to block the House of Representatives from using a proxy-voting system to allow for remote legislating during the coronavirus pandemic.
Judge Rudolph Contreras, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, wrote in his opinion that “the House unquestionably has the authority, under the Constitution, to ‘determine the rules of its proceedings.’” He also said that legislative work undertaken by Ms. Pelosi and other top Democrats was “immune from suit under the speech or debate clause.”
The dismissal means the court did not rule on the merits of the claims Republicans made, instead finding that they lacked the grounds to bring the suit.
Ms. Pelosi quickly hailed the decision.
“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,” she said in a statement. “The nation is in the middle of a dangerous pandemic, and the House of Representatives must continue to work.”
A spokesman for Representative Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California and the minority leader, who brought the suit, said he would appeal the ruling.
In addition to Ms. Pelosi, the lawsuit named the House clerk and the sergeant-at-arms as defendants. Mr. McCarthy and roughly 20 other Republicans argued that rules promulgated by Democrats allowing lawmakers to vote from afar during the coronavirus outbreak would be the end of Congress as it was envisioned by the nation’s founders.
Democrats pushed through the changes in May over unanimous Republican opposition, marking the first time Congress had allowed for remote legislating. The new rules allow lawmakers to name a colleague to vote in person on their behalf during periods designated by the sergeant-at-arms as a public health emergency.
The ruling comes as Congress, which has continued to meet during the pandemic in defiance of public health guidelines discouraging large gatherings and frequent travel, is drawing new scrutiny over its lack of consistent virus safety protocols. Neither testing nor mask-wearing is required on Capitol Hill, even though lawmakers continue to come and go from their states across the country, some of which are experiencing outbreaks. The proxy-voting system was an attempt by Democrats to allow the House to continue to function while permitting lawmakers who were unwilling or unable to take the risk of attending in person to participate.
Judge Contreras raised some concern about the Constitution’s blanket protection of all legislative speech and debate, writing that the “implications of the broad immunity conferred by the clause, while important for ensuring an independent legislative body, may be troubling.”
Still, the judge wrote that that was what the drafters intended. He cited a 1972 Supreme Court ruling, in the United States v. Brewster, that stated the clause was “a very large, albeit essential, grant of privilege.”
The Coronavirus Outbreak ›
Frequently Asked Questions
Updated August 6, 2020
Why are bars linked to outbreaks?
- Think about a bar. Alcohol is flowing. It can be loud, but it’s definitely intimate, and you often need to lean in close to hear your friend. And strangers have way, way fewer reservations about coming up to people in a bar. That’s sort of the point of a bar. Feeling good and close to strangers. It’s no surprise, then, that bars have been linked to outbreaks in several states. Louisiana health officials have tied at least 100 coronavirus cases to bars in the Tigerland nightlife district in Baton Rouge. Minnesota has traced 328 recent cases to bars across the state. In Idaho, health officials shut down bars in Ada County after reporting clusters of infections among young adults who had visited several bars in downtown Boise. Governors in California, Texas and Arizona, where coronavirus cases are soaring, have ordered hundreds of newly reopened bars to shut down. Less than two weeks after Colorado’s bars reopened at limited capacity, Gov. Jared Polis ordered them to close.
I have antibodies. Am I now immune?
- As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.
I’m a small-business owner. Can I get relief?
- The stimulus bills enacted in March offer help for the millions of American small businesses. Those eligible for aid are businesses and nonprofit organizations with fewer than 500 workers, including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and freelancers. Some larger companies in some industries are also eligible. The help being offered, which is being managed by the Small Business Administration, includes the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. But lots of folks have not yet seen payouts. Even those who have received help are confused: The rules are draconian, and some are stuck sitting on money they don’t know how to use. Many small-business owners are getting less than they expected or not hearing anything at all.
What are my rights if I am worried about going back to work?
What is school going to look like in September?
- It is unlikely that many schools will return to a normal schedule this fall, requiring the grind of online learning, makeshift child care and stunted workdays to continue. California’s two largest public school districts — Los Angeles and San Diego — said on July 13, that instruction will be remote-only in the fall, citing concerns that surging coronavirus infections in their areas pose too dire a risk for students and teachers. Together, the two districts enroll some 825,000 students. They are the largest in the country so far to abandon plans for even a partial physical return to classrooms when they reopen in August. For other districts, the solution won’t be an all-or-nothing approach. Many systems, including the nation’s largest, New York City, are devising hybrid plans that involve spending some days in classrooms and other days online. There’s no national policy on this yet, so check with your municipal school system regularly to see what is happening in your community.
“It has enabled reckless men to slander and even destroy others with impunity,” he said, “but that was the conscious choice of the framers.”
Ms. Pelosi said she hoped Republicans would now stand down from challenging decisions meant to ensure the safety of lawmakers and staff members in the Capitol.
“The dismissal of the House G.O.P. 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,” Ms. Pelosi said.