In a surreal and chaotic scene Thursday, a number of Republicans in the state Assembly defied new rules requiring people at the New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test.
At one point, there was a 15-minute standoff as State Police troopers tried to block a group of non-compliant legislators from entering the Assembly chamber for a voting session.
“This is tyranny, folks!” Assemblyman Erik Peterson, R-Hunterdon, said, raising his voice, as the lawmakers packed together at the chamber doors. “America, see what’s happening here!”
But ultimately, the troopers did not stop the legislators from walking past them to their seats on the Assembly floor.
Republicans, the minority party in the state Legislature, proceeded to stay in the chamber for more than two hours as livid Democratic leaders sought to remove them. No lawmakers were ever ejected, though. Instead, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, cut the session short.
The episode brought heavy drama to the state Legislature’s first voting day of the already hectic lame-duck period. It came one day after the new vaccine policy took effect as New Jersey continues to deal with a pandemic that has already killed more than 28,400 residents and as statewide cases and hospitalizations are rising again.
Republicans repeatedly cried the policy is unconstitutional and illogical. Democrats who control state government denounced the Republicans’ protest as “political theater” over a measure to protect public health. Coughlin called the legislators’ actions a “stunt.”
“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 speaker said in a calm but terse speech on the Assembly floor. “I’m outraged that in the midst of the sacrifice, 28 members of the minority caucus did not comply and exhibit the common decency or humanity, all because they would rather have a couple minutes on TV news.”
(A few, though not all, of the 28 Republicans in the Assembly said they did show proof of vaccination or a negative test to get in.)
And in an apparent rebuke of the State Police, Coughlin said there was a “colossal failure in security here at the Statehouse.”
“This is something we cannot tolerate,” he added.
The State Police, who patrol the Statehouse, did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
This all came one day after Republican leaders in the Assembly and state Senate filed a lawsuit in state Superior Court on Wednesday seeking to stop the policy. But the suit remained unresolved as lawmakers arrived in Trenton to vote on bills Thursday.
The tensest part of the day came when a half-dozen Republicans — many representing conservative districts in northwestern Jersey — tried to enter the Assembly chambers for their 1 p.m. voting session and were stopped by a line of uniformed state troopers. The legislators repeatedly refused to present either proof of a vaccine or a negative test.
Lawmakers were given the chance to take a rapid test before the session and those who still refuse to comply with the policy are allowed to vote remotely. But the Republicans insisted they had a constitutional right to be in their seats.
“Liberty is dying right here on the floor,” Assemblyman Hal Wirths, R-Sussex, said, arguing this is the latest example of Democratic legislative leaders and Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy being too restrictive during the pandemic.
Wirths said the State Police are “the best in the world,” but they report to Murphy’s executive branch of government and it’s “outrageous” they are being tasked with enforcing the policy.
“This is about denying the minority their right to speak out against policies Phil Murphy and his minions in this house think that they want to shove down your throats, whether you like it or not,” Peterson added.
After 15 minutes, another Republican, Assemblyman Brian Bergen, R-Morris, announced the troopers told him they would not “physically restrain us.”
“We can just walk past them,” Bergen said.
Many other Republicans proceeded to enter the chamber.
Meanwhile, reporters and photographers were initially barred from entering, even though they offered to show their vaccination cards. They were later let in when the voting session officially began.
Coughlin ordered a security sweep in an attempt to eject the non-compliant Republicans. Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso, R-Monmouth, tweeted that the speaker threatened to have them physically removed if they didn’t leave.
That never happened.
But the voting session, which had dozens of bills on the docket, didn’t start until just after 3:30 p.m.
After taking the podium, Coughlin chastised the Republicans in his speech and ended the session after members voted on only a handful of bills.
Across the hall in the state Senate, Republicans grumbled about the policy.
“I know you’re just doing your jobs. But this is horseshit,” state Sen. Holly Schepisi said as she showed troopers her vaccine card while walking in.
Still, though some Republican senators delivered speeches on the chamber floor denouncing the rules, the Senate session otherwise proceeded as planned.
Some GOP senators said instead of joining the civil disobedience in the Assembly, they’re relying on the outcome of the lawsuit filed against the policy.
”Look at the difference in the houses,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said. “And I give the Republicans in the Senate all the respect in the world. They didn’t agree with the policy, but they didn’t do the theatrics and theater.”
Sweeney said the vaccine policy is necessary because the pandemic is “getting bad” again and lawmakers are voting indoors.
“We could have canceled the in-person voting sessions and done them virtual,” he said. “That’s not what we wanted to do. But the political theater … it’s sad.”
Alyana Alfaro, a spokeswoman for Murphy’s office, said in a statement that “legislators who prefer to play politics instead of following simple proper health protocols, including taking a rapid test made available to them, are allowed to vote remotely” under the policy.
Assemblyman John DiMaio, R-Warren, the house’s incoming minority leader, shot back: “Standing up for the people is not political theater. It is our job.”
This comes one month after an election in which Republicans flipped seven seats in the Democratic-controlled Legislature. Republican turnout surged, which experts say was partially because of anger over New Jersey’s COVID-19 policies.
The new Statehouse rules stem from the little-known State Capitol Joint Management Commission, a panel of four people appointed by Murphy’s administration and one member each by the Senate and Assembly Democratic and Republican caucuses. The commission voted 5-2 on Oct. 26 to approve the policy.
The rules apply not only to lawmakers but legislative staffers, members of the press, and anyone from the public who wants to testify during a committee hearing or protest legislation inside the building.
In the lawsuit they filed this week, Republicans argue the policy is an “unprecedented overreach by a state agency,” prevents a portion of the public from participating in the legislative process, and violates how state lawmakers are allowed to vote under the state Constitution. They note the Constitution says lawmakers must “in all cases except treason and high misdemeanor, be privileged from arrest during their attendance at the sitting of their respective houses.”
On Thursday, the judge in the case scheduled a court hearing for Dec. 13.
Bergen invited reporters to join him as he arrived at the Statehouse in the morning, vowing to buck the policy. He said the rules don’t make sense because even vaccinated people can carry the virus.
“They’re discriminating against people based on vaccine status,” the Republican lawmaker told the press. “This is not about vaccination status. This is about equal opportunity to access the Statehouse.”
It was unclear throughout the day how much authority — or willingness — the State Police had in enforcing the rules.
The nonpartisan New Jersey Office of Legislative Services recently said lawmakers can’t be arrested solely for not following the policy, though Democratic leaders of the Legislature can exclude members from physically being in the building, as long as they are not barred from voting electronically.
Acting Attorney General Andrew Bruck sent legislative leaders a letter Wednesday saying troopers would indeed check people entering the Statehouse.
When Bergen arrived at the building’s entrance Thursday morning, troopers did not check his vaccine status. They did ask reporters to display theirs.
Other lawmakers were apparently granted entry to the Statehouse in a similar manner.
That stance apparently changed later in the morning, after Sweeney and Coughlin jointly released their own rules saying lawmakers would be allowed to enter the floors of the Senate or Assembly only if they had shown proof of vaccination or a negative test within the last seven days.
Kevin McArdle, a spokesman for the Assembly Democrats, said legislative leaders spoke with the State Police and the state Attorney General’s Office about the issue.
“We anticipate that those who have not followed the protocols will not be permitted in the chamber,” McArdle said.
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