Senate Republicans prevailed Tuesday, at least temporarily, after a Denver District Court battle over whether a recent computer-assisted reading of a legislative bill is legal.
Judge David Goldberg issued a ruling Tuesday afternoon that grants a preliminary injunction against Senate Democrats and the secretary of the Senate, Cyndi Markwell, requiring that bills be read at “an understandable speed,” although Goldberg did not define the speed.
In his ruling, Goldberg said the action sought by Senate Republicans was warranted and and appropriate.
“The Court does not perceive this issue to be a political question,” he wrote. “The Court does not concern itself with the legislation at hand, the majority or minority party, or the number of days remaining in the legislative session.”
“Using multiple computers to read simultaneously different portions of a bill, any bill, at 650 words per minute is not within legitimate limits,” he wrote. “The Court was unable to discern a single word from the tape played during the court proceeding. To ‘read’ the bill, which is a constitutional requisite, in such a manner renders it a nullity.”
Goldberg said that granting the injunction will preserve the status quo until final resolution of the legal case takes place.
The court requires the Senate, including the Senate secretary, to “employ a methodology that is designed to read legislation in an intelligible and comprehensive manner, and at an understandable speed.”
The issue dates back to March 11, when Senate Republicans asked that a 2,023-page bill, on recodification of a section of statute, be read at length. The move was viewed as a delaying tactic, one that Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert said Tuesday is the only tool the minority has to slow down what it views as too rapid a process on controversial bills.
The reading of House Bill 1172, sponsored by Republican Sen. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs, began with the Senate reading clerk reciting the bill for about two hours.
After that, Senate Democrats set up five computer-reading programs to finish the task; each read a different section of the bill. In all, the reading took about seven hours.
Senate Republicans obtained the aforementioned temporary injunction the following day.
The argument advanced by Republicans was that the Constitution requires each bill to be read at length twice — once prior to debate, known as second reading, and once before the final vote. Republicans contended that the reading was not intelligible, although there is no standard in law for what “intelligible” means.
The practice of getting around the “reading at length” requirement is old hat in the General Assembly. Usually, when someone asks that a lengthy bill be read in its entirety, the practice has been to line up a host of readers, all reading from different sections of the bill.
It’s a tactic most often used by the minority party and has been used by Democrats and Republicans alike over the years, depending on who ran the chamber.
Attorney Chris Murray, representing the Senate Republicans, told Goldberg that if what happened on March 11 qualified as reading a bill at length, “anything would qualify,” creating what he called “white noise.” That would render the constitution’s requirement null, he claimed.
The reading on March 11 violated the constitution in two ways, Murray said: It was not understandable, and it employed multiple readers.
“It’s so far afield that it failed to function” as a reading, he added. “The powers that be in the Senate insisted on this and it gave my clients no opportunity” to be heard.
Attorney Mark Grueskin, representing the Senate Democrats and Markwell, said the General Assembly, by law, has been allowed to make its own rules on procedure and that a request for the court to intervene would be unprecedented.
He cited previous case law that said the judiciary’s role is limited to legislative enactments — what happens after a bill is passed — and that legislatures must be left “untrammeled, and act in such manners as its wisdom” may determine.
Process is “left wholly” to the Legislature, Grueskin said. “There’s no room for doubting what that means.”
A ruling in the GOP’s favor would go far beyond just House Bill 1172, Grueskin claimed. It could apply to the Senate and House, their staff, and even to the governor if the bill in question reaches his desk, and would “imply greater control over the legislative branch” by the judiciary, a separation of powers issue.
Grueskin also raised the question of just how “intelligible” or “understandable” would be defined, since they’re not explicitly defined in statute or the Constitution.
And then there’s the definition of reading itself, which Grueskin pointed out includes “silent.”
Grueskin estimated that if House Bill 1172 had to be read at length, at a rate of 250 words per minute, it would take six days for one reading, and 12 days, or 10 percent of the entire General Assembly session, for both.
Goldberg challenged Grueskin on the issue of understandability.
“Reading,” Goldberg said, “connotes an ability to understand, otherwise the requirement is of no effect.”
As to the claim that the judicial branch should not interfere in the legislative process, Goldberg said the role of the judiciary is to resolve issues.
“Courts have a right to say what the law is,” even when it involves co-equal branches of government, he said. He did agree that a ruling on the matter would be unprecedented and pointed out that similar readings in the past have gone unchallenged, at least in the courts.
Goldberg also questioned why the framers of the constitution would require two readings if there was no standard for the reading being understandable.
Grueskin pointed out that when the state constitution was written in 1876, the General Assembly didn’t give lawmakers copies of every bill, so if a bill got lost, that was the end of it. At that time, the reading requirement had a unique purpose, he said. However, modern technology has resulted in multiple formats for lawmakers and the public to view the contents of a bill.
After the hearing, Senate President Leroy Garcia spoke briefly to reporters, stating, “Everyone’s known my style from the beginning. It’s important to work together.”
He said he looked forward to the court’s ruling.
Senate Minority Leader Chris Holberg of Parker said the dispute is not whether a computer or other technology is used.
“It’s just that a bill [should] be read at a speed that we can comprehend,” he said.
As to whether the practice of using multiple readers for reading lengthy bills should continue, Holbert said it could be addressed by rule and that he would welcome the opportunity to discuss the issue with the Senate Democrats.
After the ruling was issued, Holbert thanked Goldberg “for his expeditious and informed decision in defense of the Colorado Constitution. We sincerely hope that this marks a new beginning for discourse with Senate President Garcia. He is a good man and a thoughtful leader.”
Garcia issued a statement Tuesday evening expressing his disappointment with the ruling.
“The people of Colorado lost today. I have a deep respect for the process and the opinion of the court, and will uphold their decision; however, the reading of this 2000 page bipartisan bill means that our work trying to improve the lives of millions of Coloradans grinds to a halt.
I respect my Republican colleagues, but I will not stoop to using obstructionist tactics and will continue to keep my caucus above the political gamesmanship demonstrated by those on the other side of the aisle. The people of Colorado elected us to work hard, and I remain committed to working with anyone, regardless of party, who has a solution to the problems Coloradans face.”
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