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.”
“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.
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