WASHINGTON (CN) — Attorneys for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appeared before a federal judge on Thursday in an attempt to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a group of Republicans who have been fined for appearing on the House floor without a mask.
“About 96% of Republicans are following this policy,” Douglass Letter, Pelosi’s attorney, told U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, referring to protocols that were adopted last year to bring lawmakers back indoors after the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
“It’s a very, very small group who is being fined," Letter continued. Overwhelmingly, Democrats and Republicans are following this policy.”
The case was filed Representatives Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgie and Ralph Norman of South Carolina, each of whom was fined for refusing to wear a mask on the House floor. Their claim is that Pelosi is violating the 27th Amendment, which prevents Congress from changing lawmakers’ salaries in between elections.
Letter denied Thursday, however, that fines have any impact on the “compensation for the services” of House members. At $500 for the first violation, and $2,500 for their second, Letter balked the fines cannot be said to affect the lawmakers’ salaries.
“They have no claim. They have no valid claim,” he said.
Representing the three Republican lawmakers, attorney Aaron Siri told Walton on Thursday that there are many other constitutionally permissible punishments for failing to comply with a mandate — and fines are not one of them.
“You’re taking away someone’s ability to earn a living,” said Siri. “That’s why the founders took that off the table. Unless, the people said so in an intervening election.”
Walton retorted that other disciplinary measures, like being censured, reprimanded or removed, take time.
“In the meantime people might get sick and people might die,” Walton, a Bush appointee, said. “We are talking about a phenomenon that is killing a lot of people and making a lot of people sick.”
In his motion to dismiss, Letter noted that Representative Ron Wright of Texas and Representative-Elect Luke Letlow of Louisiana both died from Covid, as did at least one congressional staffer. Many additional staff and U.S. Capitol Police officers have also fallen ill or been hospitalized, Letter wrote.
Siri did not waver, however, even while agreeing with Walton about the threat from the virus. “It is, your honor, but that’s not the end all be all in setting aside the constitution,” Siri said. “It’s difficult times like these — during a global pandemic — that test our resolve to abide by our constitution.”
The attorney argued that the lawmakers who were fined were merely engaging in symbolic speech to show that masking wearing is “merely political theater.”
The free-speech claim fell flat with Letter, who noted that the Constitution’s Speech or Debate Clause provides absolute immunity from lawsuits for their actions taken as part of their legislative functions — like rules to discipline members.
Letter suggested that if Republican members of Congress want to make a statement about mask mandates, they could wear a mask with their message written on it.
Walton said he will decide on the motion within the next month.
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