In a 4-3 decision handed down on Monday, the Colorado Supreme Court confirmed that Democrats in the state Senate violated Colorado’s constitution in 2019 when they ordered bills to be speed-read by computers.
The situation arose from Republicans’ efforts to stall the lawmaking process in protest of Democratic policies two years ago, namely a rewrite of oil and gas regulations. GOP state lawmakers asked for bills to be read at length, specifically a noncontroversial, 2,000-page measure that gummed up policymaking for hours.
Democrats responded by having multiple computers read the measure at lightning speed, which sounded like intergalactic chatter and was impossible to discern.
Republicans sued, and a lower court ruled that Democrats violated the Colorado constitution’s provision requiring bills to be read at length upon request, specifically Article V, Section 22. Democrats challenged the ruling to the state Supreme Court, which led to the decision released Monday.
“There are unquestionably different ways by which the legislature may comply with the reading requirement,” Justice Carlos Samour Jr. wrote in the court’s majority opinion. “But the cacophony generated by the computers here isn’t one of them. And while we have no business dictating the specifics of how the legislature might comply with the reading requirement, it is our prerogative and responsibility to declare that the legislature did not comply with that requirement in this case.”
Samour, who was appointed by former Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, was joined in the majority opinion by Chief Justice Brian D. Boatright, Justice Richard L. Gabriel and Justice Maria E. Berkenkotter
The ruling did not prescribe, however, what the rules are exactly for reading legislation at length. For that reason, Christopher Jackson, an appellate attorney in Denver, said the decision was “narrow.”
Justice Monica M. Márquez dissented, writing that the Colorado Senate didn’t violate the state’s constitution and that the state Supreme Court should give more direction to the legislature on how to handle the reading of legislation moving forward.
“By declining to articulate what Article V, Section 22 demands, the majority (of the Colorado Supreme Court) has more or less assured that more conflict over the reading requirement will occur in the future,” she wrote.
Márquez was joined in her dissent by Justices William W. Hood and Melissa Hart.
The outcome of the case could embolden Republicans in the legislature to deploy the bill-read-request delay tactic more readily this year and next. Democrats control the Colorado Senate, the Colorado House and the governor’s office through at least 2022, meaning the GOP’s most powerful weapon at the statehouse is time.
The delay tactics in 2019 appeared to be effective at times. Democrats started negotiating with Republicans to get them to stop shutting down lawmaking, and the GOP has gone on to slow down work at the Capitol on other occasions and force the majority party to the dealmaking table.
Colorado Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, and Colorado Senate Secretary Cindi Markwell were listed as the petitioners on the case. Republicans state Sens. John Cooke, Bob Gardner and Chris Holbert were on the other side.
Colorado taxpayers have been footing the legal bills for Garcia and Markwell. The case had cost more than $53,000 as of Monday. The Republicans’ legal expenses were not paid by the state because they initiated the case.
“We are obviously disappointed and disagree with the Supreme Court’s ruling, but we certainly intend to honor it,” Garcia said in a written statement. “Partisan games and delay tactics frequent Washington’s playbook, not Colorado’s. And though we’ve sadly seen our fair share of wrench-throwing, I am encouraged by how far we’ve come over the last few years. Bipartisan collaboration has only gotten stronger.”
Sage Naumann, spokesman for Colorado Senate Republicans, said his caucus was grateful for the ruling.
“We stand ready to work with the majority to establish clear, constitutional guidelines for the reading of bills on the floor moving into the future,” he said in a written statement.
The Colorado General Assembly did not convene on Monday because of the weekend snowstorm. Lawmakers return to the Capitol on Tuesday.