OLYMPIA — A handful of Republican state lawmakers and others are suing Democratic leaders and a House official over COVID-19 policies at the Legislature.
The lawsuit comes as Senate and House officials prepare for the legislative session that begins in January amid a pandemic that has killed more than 750,000 Americans, including more than 9,100 state residents.
The legal challenge takes aim at House Chief Clerk Bernard Dean and four Democratic legislative leaders — including Democratic Speaker Laurie Jinkins — who recently approved rules and restrictions for attending the session in person.
That new policy requires that representatives show proof of vaccination to be on the House floor. The plan meanwhile requires members of the public to show proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test taken with 72 hours in order to sit in the House gallery that overlooks the lawmakers as they work.
GOP lawmakers — including Reps. Jim Walsh of Aberdeen, Robert Sutherland of Granite Falls and Jenny Graham of Spokane — filed the lawsuit Monday in Thurston County Superior Court.
They — along with some constituents in the lawmakers’ districts are also named as plaintiffs — alleged that the new House plan “unlawfully limits access to House facilities.”
“The Plans appear to be an underhanded method used by a few tyrannical members to impose Governor Inslee’s mandate on a legislative body specifically exempt from the mandate,” the complaint states, referring to the governor’s vaccine mandate for executive branch employees.
In a statement, Jinkins said she believed the lawsuit had no merit.
“Once again, certain members of the House Republican Caucus are choosing to engage in performative stunts for media attention rather than modeling public health best practices to keep fellow lawmakers, legislative staff, and the public safe from a highly contagious virus,” Jinkins said in prepared remarks. “The House operations plans allow all members to fully represent their constituents and fulfill the duties of their office in the midst of an ongoing pandemic.”
The Senate — which operates separately from the House — has adopted its own COVID policies for the upcoming session. That plan allows lawmakers and staff to be on the Senate floor regardless of vaccination status if they have been tested.
With half the number of lawmakers as the House, the Senate for the upcoming session will allow all of its members to be on the floor at one time.
Dean, the top nonpartisan administrator in the House, declined to comment. In an email last week, Dean wrote that 20 of the House’s 98 representatives have not shown proof of vaccination.
“My understanding is that there are a number of members who still plan to verify their vaccination status,” Dean wrote then. “However, to my knowledge, none have made appointments to do so as of today.”
The lawsuit asks the court, among other things, to declare the COVID restrictions unconstitutional, and to block the plan, or the enforcement of it.
“It’s not about money,” Walsh said in an interview, but about treating lawmakers the same. Walsh said he couldn’t speak for the other representatives, but that he would consider the idea of having representatives getting tested to be on the House floor.
Walsh also called on House officials to recognize natural immunity from having had COVID as a suitable alternative to vaccination.
In addition, the lawsuit also takes issue with the current House restrictions that have barred lawmakers from going to their offices on the Capitol campus in recent weeks without proof of vaccination.
The plans approved by the House and Senate allow for more access than this year’s session, which began in January, when COVID vaccines had not yet been widely distributed.
Those restrictions allowed few lawmakers on the House and Senate floor, with much of the debates and votes happening remotely from their homes or legislative offices.
Committee meetings in the upcoming session will still be held remotely and the number of House members on the floor will still be limited. But unlike last year, the public will be allowed to sit in on House and Senate floor sessions.