By NANCY WEST, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Seven Democratic members of the NH House and the state Democratic Party have filed a lawsuit to require Republican Speaker Sherman Packard to provide a remote option for House sessions to legislators with medical conditions that make them especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
The seven Democrats – including House Minority Leader Renny Cushing who is being treated for stage 4 pancreatic cancer – say they otherwise risk serious illness or death because of COVID-19 and “reckless behavior” on the part of the Republican members.
“Each Individual Plaintiff suffers from one or more medical conditions and disabilities that render them extremely vulnerable to a potentially deadly infection from the COVID-19 virus such that in-person attendance at sessions of the House is impossible without subjecting them to extreme pain and suffering, as well as a serious threat to their health and their lives,” the lawsuit alleges.
The Democrats sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act and filed an emergency restraining order. The next House sessions are scheduled for Feb. 24 and 25 at the NH Sportsplex in Bedford.
Packard said in an email that he and his legal team are reviewing the complaint but insisted all House members will be safe.
“At over 50,000 square feet of floor space, our new venue will have more than double the usable area of the Whittemore Center Arena to spread out and socially distance,” Packard said.
His team is working with the Department of Health and Human Services, state and local police, fire and EMS services to ensure a safe environment, Packard said.
“We’ve held previous House sessions at the Whittemore Center where we had high attendance levels by legislators, numerous legislative and UNH employees, police, paramedics, contract employees, firefighters, and others,” Packard said. “No one contracted COVID-19 at the Whittemore Center indoor events in 2020.”
The complaint said the Democrats lost confidence in the Republican members’ willingness to comply with COVID-19 guidelines due to several incidents since the pandemic began.
“The most serious incident occurred when the majority caucus met on November 20, 2020, largely unmasked, even though several members present had active cases of COVID-19,” the complaint said.
The Republican caucus failed to inform its Democratic colleagues of the danger “by this mass exposure when the full House held session on December 2, 2020.”
“It is unknown how many members of the majority caucus contracted COVID-19 as a result of this reckless behavior because that information has been suppressed. The Republican Speaker of the House, Richard Hinch, died of COVID-19 shortly after being elected, and it is believed he contracted the virus as a result of the aforementioned caucus meeting,” the complaint said.
Cushing said in a news release Tuesday that he and his leadership team will continue to offer solutions to Packard and work with him on an acceptable resolution.
“However, with only eight days until the next House Session and no indication that the Speaker will provide remote access, we had no choice but to resort to litigation,” Cushing said.
Besides Cushing, the state Representatives named in the lawsuit include David Cote, Kenneth Snow, Katherine Rogers, Paul Berch, Diane Langley, and Charlotte DiLorenzo.
The complaint also alleges violations of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and Part One Article 11 of the New Hampshire Constitution.