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Politics and Government

A partisan lawsuit is looming over Colorado’s 2020 legislative session — and getting costly for taxpayers

Republicans in the state Senate last year sued Democrats when they used several computers to speed-read legislation GOP lawmakers wanted to be read at length. The legal action remains ongoing.

The Colorado House chambers, photographed on Jan. 4, 2019. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Democrats see Colorado’s 2020 legislative session as an opportunity to reset their relationship with statehouse Republicans. But looming large is bad blood from last year’s lawmaking term that is central to an unresolved — and expensive — lawsuit.

A lawsuit filed in 2019 by Republicans in the state Senate against the Democratic majority is still making its way through the courts. The legal action is over an instance where Democrats used multiple computers simultaneously to speed-read legislation that GOP lawmakers wanted read at length.

Republicans, who have few ways to flex their muscles since they are in the minority, asked for legislation to be read in full in a sometimes successful effort to slow down the lawmaking process and force Democrats to the negotiating table. It was part of the GOP’s session-long protest of Democratic policies, including a rewrite of the state’s oil and gas regulations

The state’s constitution requires that bills be read at length when requested. But some legislation is hundreds of pages long, taking hours — if not days — to read. That’s why Democrats resorted to speed-reading computers in 2019 to move things along to shorten the process.

Democrats have lost the legal battle so far, with a judge ruling in March 2019 that they violated the state’s constitution with the unintelligible speed reading because the constitutional requirement says legislation must be read in a comprehensible way. The multi-computer reading sounded like jumbled intergalactic chatter

Democrats are challenging the ruling in the Colorado Court of Appeals. Taxpayers have been on the hook for $31,227.30 in legal fees so far for Colorado Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat, and Senate Clerk Cindi Markwell, who is also named in the lawsuit.

Republicans’ legal fees are not covered by the state because they brought the lawsuit. 

The Colorado Senate on Wednesday, March 13, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Garcia defended the spending Tuesday as being needed to clear up the legal question for future legislatures, specifically about what powers the judicial branch has over the legislative one.

“This was not something that was started by us,” he said, blasting Republicans. “They opened a new chapter in tactics and obstruction that have never been used in this institution by filing a lawsuit and going to district court. We need resolution for future legislatures to understand that — again, this is my opinion — it’s imperative that courts not weigh in on co-equal branches of government.”

Garcia says he wants to ensure that “these tactics can never be applied by either side,” referring to the court’s intervention in the legislature. 

Statehouse Republicans have said the lawsuit is necessary to ensure the minority’s voice is heard. State Sen. John Cooke, a Greeley Republican who led the lawsuit, thinks Democrats should accept the ruling and move on. 

“I think it’s a waste of time and a waste of money, and taxpayers should be upset with them continuing to appeal the case,” he said. 

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Cooke said Republicans will use the tactic again in 2020 “when the need arises.” In 2019, lawmaking ground to a halt for a day when Republicans asked that a non-controversial, 2,000-page bill be read at length.

“It just depends a lot on the Democrats,” he said. “Are they willing to work with us and talk with us and compromise? Or are they just going to try to steamroll over us?”

Garcia and House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder, say they want to work more closely with Republicans in the 2020 legislative session. Garcia acknowledged in an interview that there are things he would have done differently during the 2019 lawmaking term, which in the Senate was dominated by tense partisan gridlock for weeks. 

The chambers of Colorado House at the Capitol. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Becker said she is encouraging her members to try to vet their policies, work across the aisle where possible and involve stakeholders in decision-making to avoid conflicts with Republicans. But she ultimately still thinks the GOP will use the tactic.

“It certainly slows down and gums up the process, but the more we can be respectful to Republicans — make sure they have a heads up and have an opportunity to have their say — we can avoid some of the worst outcomes,” Becker said. “But they are going to use that tool. We know it. That’s OK.”

Becker says she is not expecting a ruling in the case until after the legislative session, which ends in May.

The lawsuit is pending in the Colorado Court of Appeals. The court is awaiting a brief from Garcia and Markwell that is due Jan. 17. 


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