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The state Supreme Court has temporarily denied a request by House Republicans to prohibit the enforcement of pandemic-related rules for this year’s legislative session. While the court continues to consider a final ruling, the current procedures for the 60-day session remain in place.

This story also appeared in Santa Fe New Mexican

After a contentious week that included a COVID-19 outbreak involving one Republican legislator and others who work at the Capitol, House Republican leaders filed a lawsuit Saturday with the Supreme Court, contending the new rules — passed by the Democratic-controlled House and adopted early in the session — are unconstitutional. 

House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, (R-Artesia), and Reps. Rod Montoya, (R-Farmington), and Larry Scott, (R-Hobbs), filed the lawsuit, which names House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, and the Legislative Council as defendants.

The Supreme Court, in a news release issued Monday afternoon, ordered “an expedited response” to the court petition by Feb. 7. But the request for a temporary stay was denied.

In a telephone interview Monday, Townsend said he was not surprised by the decision.”I would have been shocked if it had gone the other way,” he said. “It does mean that the court denied the lawsuit on the constitutionality [of the new rules]. We will respect the court’s time to rule on that and act accordingly.”

Rep. Damon Ely, D-Albuquerque, who created the initial rule changes, said by phone Monday the court’s denial of a stay was “the right thing to do,” and defended the motivation behind the rules. “The rules we have passed have tried to balance safety, transparency and equal rights of members,” he said. “There is not a single right of the minority that we have taken away. I think the rules will survive judicial scrutiny.”

The legal wrangling is just the latest chapter in an ongoing conflict between Democratic and Republican leaders in the House. Republicans, outnumbered 45-25, have often questioned or challenged Egolf’s procedural rulings on the floor. Like many Republicans in the Senate, they also have also questioned the requirement to close the state Capitol to the public, hold committee hearings remotely and prohibit the use of microphones during debate on the House floor. 

Following the news a legislator had become infected, Egolf said he would limit live participation in future House floor sessions to just two members from his party and one from the Republican side, further exacerbating the GOP’s frustration.

The lawsuit charges rule changes allowing House members to participate remotely and restricting use of the House chamber violate the New Mexico Constitution. The suit says the changes deprive residents from participating in the legislative process as well as preventing legislators from “discharging their constitutional obligations.” The House is scheduled to convene at 11 a.m. Tuesday to introduce new legislation, make committee referrals and handle other procedure business. The legislative body does have one bill it might consider on that agenda — House Bill 55, a transparency bill.

There may be a number of Republicans on the floor tomorrow. Townsend said Egolf told him by phone Monday that all members of the House are welcome on the floor for Tuesday’s session. He said he expects quite a few from his party to attend.  “It will open it up and be good for all,” Townsend said.

A spokesman for Egolf, confirmed in a text Tuesday’s floor session will be open to all House members, though they also can participate via Zoom from their offices or homes.