Two Idaho Democratic lawmakers are suing House Speaker Scott Bedke (R-Oakley), saying he’s breaking the law by forging ahead with the legislative session without giving them the ability to participate remotely in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Reps. Sue Chew (D-Boise) and Muffy Davis (D-Sun Valley) both said their respective health conditions jeopardize their lives if they contract COVID-19 and that they haven’t been given reasonable accommodations as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“This is the last thing I wanted to do. I’m not a fan of lawsuits," Davis said in a phone interview Thursday.
Davis, a Paralympic gold medalist, has paraplegia from severing her spine during a training run while skiing on Bald Mountain in Sun Valley as a teenager and has a 12-year-old daughter with asthma. Chew has type-2 diabetes, as well as hypertension.
Medical experts say these conditions put those who have them at higher risk for serious complications if they were to contract COVID-19.
Davis says the body's reaction to getting the virus is like playing Russian roulette.
“You don’t know if it’s going to be the one with the bullet or not and I’m not willing to take that risk for my life or my daughter’s life,” she said.
Both lawmakers say they want the ability to participate in the legislative session remotely – something that would require a two-thirds vote to approve by members of the House. Many state legislatures across the country have either allowed remote participation or conducted their entire sessions virtually.
In an interview with Boise State Public Radio in December, Bedke, who’s being sued in his official capacity, said he didn’t think there was enough support to go remote.
“I think there’s a lot of momentum with the status quo and I think people will want to operate that way until they cannot,” Bedke said at the time.
Neither legislator is demanding in the lawsuit that the session be postponed, nor for a mask mandate within the Idaho Capitol.
Chew and Davis said they’ve repeatedly contacted Republican leaders who control the chamber about their concerns, but haven’t received any response.
Many Idaho lawmakers refuse to physically distance themselves from others or wear face coverings while they’ve been in the statehouse over the past several months. Seating in both the House and Senate chambers don’t offer adequate space, either, according to the lawsuit.
The crowds at the beginning of August’s special session, some of them armed, shoved their way past law enforcement officers into the Idaho House gallery, shattering a glass door in the process. They also ripped down signs taped to every other chair to promote physical distancing.
Davis, who uses a wheelchair, was stuck in a committee hearing room during the special legislative session that only has one accessible exit point when maskless protesters disrupted a meeting she attended. She had to be escorted out by state troopers.
“One went in front and kind of broke crowd and the other one pushed me up and through.”
But it was “incredibly nerve-wracking,” Davis said, because she was worried that a gun might discharge in the crowd, since several of those who stormed into the House gallery had been armed.
“They were all very agitated and riled up and all it was going to take was one moment a gun to go off and then there’d be 60 going off and I’d be right there in the middle of it,” she said.
Ultimately, just three people were arrested – none for the initial clash with police – during that special session, including Ammon Bundy, the man who led an armed standoff with federal agents at a wildlife reserve in rural eastern Oregon in 2016.
Neither Chew nor Davis were able to avoid crowds in the public hallways, which are required to access their office space, according to the suit.
Chew contends she was also promised access to remote seating in the House gallery where she could vote and debate while being distanced from others, but that seating was taken by the throngs of maskless people who shoved their way in.
The result was a “complete and total failure to respect any kind of accommodation” for these legislators, they said.
The two also want self-contained offices, rather than the cubicles they were assigned, after Republicans reserved each of those spaces for themselves.
"Though it’s unfortunate that negotiations have taken this turn, I will continue to move forward in good faith toward a solution workable for all members," Bedke said in a statement. "I can assure everyone that the Leadership Team from the House Republican Caucus is working to make a safe and productive environment where we can complete our business as quickly and effectively as possible."
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