Jim Walsh and five other Republican state representatives are suing the House Executive Rules Committee over sections of the COVID-19 safety measures planned for the upcoming legislative session.
A lawsuit was filed Monday in Thurston County Superior Court on behalf of the six representatives and six Washington voters. Walsh, Robert Sutherland, Rob Chase, Virginia Graham, Bob McCaslin and Jesse Young were the six House members who filed the suit.
The representatives claim the 2022 House Operations Rules discriminate against their decisions to not be vaccinated, limiting their access to parts of the statehouse and their ability to meet with constituents at the Capitol. The lawsuit seeks an injunction to prevent the current ruleset from being implemented when the legislative session begins Jan. 10.
The 2022 House Operations Rules require representatives to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test in order to access offices and conference rooms during the session. The House floor will be limited only to vaccinated representatives and all other members would need to vote remotely.
The lawsuit repeatedly calls the representatives who do not have proof of vaccine “undocumented legislators.” The suit claims the rules for the House floor and other buildings “interfere with the undocumented Representatives’ right to participate equally in the political process.”
In a Facebook post Monday accompanying the lawsuit, Walsh compared the representatives’ actions to the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education as an example that “separate is inherently unequal.”
The lawsuit named Bernard Dean, Chief Clerk of the House of Representatives, as a defendant in the lawsuit along with the four representatives who approved the plan through the executive rules committee: Laurie Jinkins, Pat Sullivan, Lillian Ortiz-Self and Monica Stonier.
“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 a statement Tuesday.
“The House operations plans allow all members to fully represent their constituents and fulfill the duties of their office.”
Sullivan told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that the new rules were meant to limit the chance of a COVID outbreak, which would potentially close the House and severely limit the work being done. Sullivan said the same virtual options lawmakers used during this year’s session would be available again in 2022.
The plaintiffs are being represented by the Silent Majority Foundation, a newly created group that has filed multiple lawsuits opposing Washington’s vaccine mandates since September.
The lawsuit includes six voters who support the representatives as a second set of plaintiffs. Those voters claim that by limiting their elected officials’ physical access to the Capitol and ability to interact with other representatives, the plan amounted to a form of voter disenfranchisement.
The House gallery will require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test from all members of the public, as well as limiting total attendance. Members of the public would be fully barred from legislators’ offices or the John L. O’Brien building. The operations plan says House members “will identify potential meeting spaces” to serve as an alternative during the session.
The representatives’ lawsuit also criticized the proposed House rules for not allowing legislators to seek religious, medical or philosophical exemptions to the requirements. Emails included in the initial court filing show Walsh had asked to receive a COVID exemption in October on religious grounds.
The request was denied, in part, because there is not an explicit vaccine mandate for state legislators.
The Washington State Senate does not have a vaccine requirement for members on the floor, but does require them to pass a rapid COVID test. The same vaccine or testing requirement will be in place for senators working at their Olympia offices as on the House side.