Court Rules For Democrats In Debate Over Legislative Session

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A federal appeals court has vacated a judge's ruling that upheld the New Hampshire House Speaker's refusal to provide remote access to legislative sessions to lawmakers who are at a higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19.

Seven Democratic lawmakers sued Sherman Packard, a Republican, 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.

A federal judge ruled against them, saying the House could proceed with in-person sessions. But the Boston-based 1st Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday sent the case back to the judge in Concord with instructions to hold further proceedings to determine if the plaintiffs are “persons with disabilities within the meaning” of the ADA or the federal Rehabilitation Act.

The court also ruled that the Concord judge “should also determine whether — and to what extent — changing circumstances may moot the plaintiffs’ claims," as vaccines become more available.

On Friday, the House was holding its third consecutive day of an in-person session at a Bedford sports complex. There was no mention of the ruling as the session got underway.

House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing said the decision was “a great victory for democracy," WMUR-TV reported.

“It sends a clear message the Legislature is not above the constitution and ADA. I look forward to working out a system in which everyone can participate,” Cushing said.

In other coronavirus-related developments:

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EMERGENCY POWERS

The New Hampshire House on Thursday passed two measures that address civil and religious liberties during a state of emergency.

One bill was crafted following a court decision last year that upheld a statewide emergency ban on gatherings of 50 people or more to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Several people who had planned to attend political and religious events had challenged the ban, saying it violated their constitutional rights. A judge ruled that Gov. Chris Sununu may suspend or limit constitutional rights during a state of emergency.

The bill amends the emergency powers statute to prohibit the suspension of civil liberties, which it defines as encompassing “any guarantee against, protection against, or remedy for an imposition, intrusion, fine, punishment, or penalty by a governmental entity or agent" as set out in the state's bill of rights or in the U.S. Constitution.

Opponents of the bill said it was unnecessary and gave too broad a definition of civil liberties.

Another measure the House passed would prohibit the powers activated in a state of emergency from forbidding in-person gatherings at houses of worship, treating them as an essential service. Bill opponents said a new law protecting religious freedoms isn't necessary and that during the pandemic, there have been large gatherings for religious activities that have led to COVID-19 outbreaks.

On Thursday, the House voted to give the Legislature more of a say in approving any extension of a state of emergency by the governor.

The measures now go to the Senate.

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THE NUMBERS:

More than 87,000 people have tested positive for the virus in New Hampshire, including 515 cases announced Thursday. One new death was announced, bringing the total to 1,251 in the state.

The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in New Hampshire has risen over the past two weeks from 334 new cases per day on March 24 to 415 new cases per day on Wednesday.