A chaotic day in Trenton resulted in a number of Republican lawmakers, including those from North Jersey, not complying with COVID-19 protocols established by legislative leaders from the opposing party.
At issue were the rules ushered in by the Senate President and Assembly Speaker that required all those entering the Statehouse to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or be tested, resulting in a nearly three hour delay in the Assembly for its session Dec. 2.
The requirements led New Jersey State Troopers around 1 p.m. to ask for vaccination status or test results before lawmakers entered chambers. While GOP Assembly members were initially stopped for about 15 minutes crying “tyranny” from accessing the Assembly floor—including Assemblyman Hal Wirths (R-24) and Parker Spence (R-24)—Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-25) eventually led lawmakers in defying the regulations as they walked past the officers assigned because they would not physically restrain them from gaining access onto the floor.
Coughlin Admonishes GOP
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-19) gaveled in the session just after 3:30 p.m. for a session that would last approximately 20 minutes. He decried Republicans for not following the same rules New Jerseyans have encountered over that last 21 months.
“I’m outraged that 28 members of the minority caucus could not be bothered to exhibit the decency or humanity (just) to have a couple minutes on the TV news,” said Coughlin. “To be clear, in the midst of this sacrifice the only thing that was asked of the legislators here today to do was to show that they weren’t infected, to care about their colleagues and the people in the chamber.”
“The Democratic caucus came to Trenton today to take care of the people’s business; the Republican caucus chose to care more about allowing an outbreak at the Statehouse.”
The speaker later added that “there’s been a colossal failure of security here at the Statehouse. This is something we cannot tolerate.”
While Assembly members forced the issue, GOP State Senate lawmakers did comply, including State Sen. Holly Schepisi (R-39), but expressed their displeasure with the protocol.
“Because I already showed the card, was temperature checked and have to wear a mask to enter the building. Now I’ve got to show it an hour later to enter the room I need to vote in. It’s nonsense,” tweeted Schepisi.
The conflict started around 10:30 a.m. when Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) and Coughlin codified the State Capitol Joint Management Commission rules that went into effect Dec. 1 for lawmakers, the day after in-coming Republican leaders for both houses filed a lawsuit challenging the requirements.
Dem the Rules
The move by Dems was in response to the nonpartisan New Jersey Office of Legislative Services (OLS) opinion that a legislator who declines to follow a new COVID-19 policy cannot be arrested, but that the legislature itself could enforce their own rules to exclude the in-person presence of a member.
OLS counsel Jason Krajewski wrote to GOP leaders that the presiding officer has the ability to keep a member off the floor “so long as those actions do not disenfranchise the citizens of the State by completely prohibiting the member’s participation in voting on legislation.” The rules signed by Sweeney and Coughlin allow for remote voting, which appeared to satisfy the OLS requirement to allow only those fully vaccinated or taking a test to take their seats in the Senate and Assembly. Two Republican members of the Assembly would vote remotely during the Dec. 2 session.
The new protocols require that all those entering the buildings must show ID and proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 PCR test conducted within the previous 72 hours. Additionally, on sight rapid tests were available to all entrants. The commission policy applies to elected lawmakers voting in person, all legislative staff members, reporters covering events, and anyone visiting the Statehouse, including those who want to speak at a hearing or protest a bill inside the building.
Besides vaccines and testing, the commission requires masks be worn by everyone in the State Capitol Complex in public areas. For Senate and Assembly galleries, capacity will be limited to one third of the seats and every other chair in committee shall not be used.
Lack of Enforcement
At the beginning of the day, multiple media reports stated the New Jersey State Police didn’t ask lawmakers for proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test when they entered the statehouse on Thursday, but were checking everyone else.
“I’m glad to see them back down and not enforce this unconstitutional and nonsensical policy when I walked in this morning,” said Bergen. “I’m troubled though that they are enforcing it on the public still. Access to the statehouse should be open to all and not discriminatory.”
After Republicans gained access to their seats, State Troopers around 2 p.m. called for a security sweep of the chamber that would necessitate those in the lower chamber leaving. GOP lawmakers refused and stayed in their seats.
State Senate Session
While the Assembly was stalled, the State Senate proceeded with their business. State Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-26) restated his argument from earlier this week that the protocols were based more on politics than medical science and called it pseudio science on the Senate floor. The Morris County lawmaker objected to the new policy that he saw as stopping him from doing the work that voters elected him to do.
“They failed to factor in natural immunity, which has shown to be equal to, if not more effective than vaccines,” Pennacchio claimed. “People can go to a liquor store or casino, stand in line in a shopping area, and pack into a stadium to watch a football game without proof of vaccination, but they will be blocked from watching their elected representatives in Trenton…It doesn’t make sense.”
On Dec. 1, the day the commission rules went into effect, State Senate and Assembly Republican leaders filed a lawsuit in New Jersey Superior Court to block enforcement of the policy. A state appellate court judge stays statehouse commission requirement that lawmakers show proof of vaccination, orders lawyers to appear on Dec. 13. The rules stay in place until then.
Republicans in recent days have pointed to a passage in the New Jersey state Constitution that reads that “Members of the Senate and General Assembly shall, in all cases except treason and high misdemeanor, be privileged from arrest during their attendance at the sitting of their respective houses” in their arguments that the new rules are unconstitutional.
“We’re petitioning the court for emergent relief to block enforcement of an exclusionary policy that we believe is unconstitutional and undemocratic,” said State Sen. Steve Oroho (R-24), the incoming Senate Republican leader. “With the policy taking effect, we felt compelled to take action to ensure continued public access to the Statehouse and the legislative process.”
Assemblyman John DiMaio (R-23), the incoming Assembly Minority leader, argued his caucus objected to the new rules as it is unfair to the public and is unconstitutional.
“Unfair because of how it affects the public from participating in the democratic process, and unconstitutional because the commission has no authority over how lawmakers legislate—especially in the Statehouse,” said DiMaio. “Democrats cannot prevent legislators from representing the people who elected them, but that is what they are trying to do.”
But the opinion from the OLS was at odds with that view from Republicans, stating that the protocols the commission had implemented to battle the coronavirus were within the purview of legislative leaders if they choose so.
“The compelling government interest in protecting the health of Legislators and Legislative employees, mitigating the spread of infectious disease, and ensuring the continuity of Legislative business is well established in the text of the policy and by the Legislature’s own actions,” Krajewski explained. “The policy provides Legislators three options: they can choose to be vaccinated; they can choose to take a PCR or rapid test, or they can choose to participate remotely. The variety of options weighs in favor of a government claim that they have adopted the least restrictive means, narrowly tailored to achieve the compelling government objective.”