DENVER — The 2019 legislative session took on a new look when a sitting lawmaker took the witness stand in a lawsuit pitting Senate Republicans against Senate Democrats and the non-partisan Senate staff.
Sen. Bob Gardner (R-Colorado Springs) took the witness stand in a Denver District Courtroom on Tuesday morning. Gardner, along with Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert (R-Parker) and Sen. John Cooke (R-Greeley) were excused from the Senate on Tuesday morning to be at a Denver City and County Building courtroom.
It all started earlier this month when Republicans asked for a 2,000-page bill to be read at length in an effort to keep Democrats from quickly pushing bills through the legislature this session. Democrats have control of both houses now, as lawmakers debate issues like the red flag bill and oil and gas reform.
By Tuesday evening, the judge sided with Republicans and ordered a preliminary injunction to keep computers from speedreading legislation. He wrote legislators must "employ a methodology that is designed to read legislation in an intelligible and comprehensive manner, and at an understandable speed."
SO, WHY WAS EVERYONE AT COURT INSTEAD THE CAPITOL?
The trio has sued Senate President Leroy Garcia (D-Pueblo) and Senate Secretary Cindi Markwell over the computerized reading of a 2,000-page bill on March 11. In an effort to slow down the Democrats from quickly passing legislation, such as Senate Bill 181 — oil and gas reform — Cooke asked for an unrelated 2,000-page bill to be read aloud.
Three members of the Senate staff took turns reading House Bill 1172 for about three-and-a-half hours before Senate staff set up multiple computers to simultaneously read different sections of the bill at the same time. What would have taken humans days to complete, the computers finished in hours.
So why are these three senators the ones suing? Cooke asked for the bill to be read at length, Holbert is the top Senate Republican and Gardner is the Senate sponsor of the bill that was read by computers. They say that the Senate President and Senate Secretary violated the state Constitution by not having the bill read so that it could be understood.
Last week, the trio of Senators were granted a temporary restraining order, preventing the Senate from using computers to read bills. The matter was sent to court for further guidance.
“We have a bit of a fuller house than usual,” noted the clerk of Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg, just before court started at 9 a.m. The crowd of about 10 included four reporters, but Goldberg denied multiple media requests to allow cameras in the courtroom.
From there, everyone got right to the topic at hand with an opening statement from attorney Christopher Murray, who represents the three suing senators.
“Does the reading have to be understandable under the Constitution?” Murray said.
Gardner was the only witness called to the stand in the hearing.
During his questioning, Murray played the audio from a portion of the Senate floor recording from March 11, when the computers were reading the bill.
“I do recognize that sound. It’s automated almost like insect sounds that you hear in a sci-fi movie,” Gardner said to his attorney. “We’re asking the court for a ruling that Article V, Section 22 of the Constitution applies. That it applies in a meaningful way. That ordinary people that would like to listen to our proceedings — and Senators would like to listen to our proceedings — could understand our bills.”
In cross-examination, attorney Mark Grueskin, who was representing Garcia and Markwell, asked Gardner where he was while the bill was being read by the three members of Senate staff - before the computers took over. He said he was either on the Senate floor, the Minority Office, or “I probably took a comfort break.”
“Were you on the Senate floor for the entire three-and-a-half hours?” Grueskin asked.
“I was certainly not. I was in the Senate Minority Office listening,” Gardner said. “I listened to a great deal."
Grueskin also brought up that Gardner voted in a Senate committee to send his 2,000-page bill to the Senate consent calendar, meaning it would be moved forward to the Senate floor en masse with other universally-supported bills, and therefore isn't scrutinized as thoroughly as more controversial measures.
Gardner later asked for it to be removed from the consent calendar, which is how Cooke could ask for the bill to be read at length.
In his testimony, Gardner said the reason is because legislation is “being rammed through, perhaps consistent with the rules, but unlike anything I’ve seen in my 11 years.”
But his attorney brought the argument back to the beginning question in his closing statements, keeping the focus on whether a computer speedreading legislation is permitted.
“Why they asked for House Bill 1172 to be read aloud is irrelevant,” Murray said.
Tuesday's decision was strictly about the temporary restraining order preventing the use of computer technology to read House Bill 1172, but Grueskin argued that the judge is being asked to make a decision that would impact the legislature beyond this one measure.
“(It’s) unwise to be asked to play traffic cop in the legislative process. If you grant this order, you will be the babysitter of the legislature. Don’t talk too fast!” he had said during his opening statements.
He closed by saying that the court's involvement here is "unprecedented, unwarranted and unwise."
“Whatever goes on today will not be the final ruling,” Goldberg said before wrapping.
There could still be a trial over the use of computer technology to read future bills.
“I don’t have any problem with computers. Technology is evolving,” said Goldberg, who also cautioned that he’s looking forward to hearing expert testimony on this topic.
The hearing concluded at around 11:15 a.m. By Tuesday evening, Goldberg announced his ruling in favor of the Colorado Senate Republicans.
After the hearing, Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert (R-Parker) told 9NEWS political reporter Marshall Zelinger that this was the only tool Republicans had at their disposal in an effort to slow legislation.
“Right now we have one party control of the legislature, and again, this is the one tool where we can raise our hand, as the minority, and say slow down," he said.
Garcia was in the courtroom during the hearing. Following the judge's ruling, he issued a statement saying he respects the court, but he still considers this all to be "obstructionist tactics":
"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."
SUGGESTED VIDEOS | Local stories from 9NEWS