A federal judge on Thursday dismissed House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy’s lawsuit seeking to overturn the House’s adoption of proxy voting — a measure embraced by Democrats to permit members to cast votes from their district to avoid traveling during the coronavirus crisis.
Washington, D.C., federal district court Judge Rudolph Contreras determined that McCarthy’s suit was out of bounds because courts have no ability to review purely legislative functions, affirming the sweeping power of the House to set its own rules and processes without other branches of government getting involved.
Though Contreras noted that such broad power could give rise to “troubling” hypotheticals — such as rules that interfered with lawmakers’ voting power on a discriminatory basis — the proxy voting measure had no such implications, he said.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s legal victory helps enshrine the power of the House to continue legislating even as many Democrats have remained away from Washington to avoid travel because of the risks of coronavirus. Republicans had almost entirely rejected the proxy voting option, accusing Democrats of shirking their responsibility to be present in Washington, and suggesting the Constitution requires the House to meet in person in order to form a quorum to do business. Only one Republican, retiring Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.), had cast a proxy vote as of this week.
“The dismissal of the House GOP 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,” Pelosi said in a statement.
An aide said that McCarthy planned to appeal the ruling.
The House adopted its proxy voting process in May, empowering Pelosi to designate 45-day periods in which proxy voting is permitted, so long as the national coronavirus emergency remains in effect. Under the plan, lawmakers who certify they are unable to travel to Washington are permitted to designate a colleague to cast a vote for them. Under the procedures, these designated colleagues must vote the way the absent lawmakers require.
In their lawsuit, McCarthy and other Republicans contended that the proxy voting rules improperly dilute the voting power of members who show up. They also argued that the Constitution’s requirement that the House have a quorum to do business required a “physical” presence in the Capitol, and that any other interpretation would defeat Congress’ purpose.
But Contreras never reached the substance of the GOP argument itself, ruling that he was precluded from even considering it because of the Constitution’s Speech or Debate Clause, which protects Congress from liability for legislative actions.
“The Court can conceive of few other actions, besides actually debating, speaking, or voting, that could more accurately be described as ‘legislative’ than the regulation of how votes may be cast,” Contreras ruled.
The court’s ruling could pave the way for additional measures that some lawmakers of both parties have called for, such as remote voting, though Pelosi and top Democrats have warned that such procedures could carry security risks.