Incapacity rights teams settle with Idaho Legislature over COVID-19 dangers

Legislators, meeting at the Idaho Statehouse, have settled a lawsuit with disability rights groups and agreed to improve virtual access to hearings.

Disability rights groups have settled a lawsuit with Idaho lawmakers, House Speaker Scott Bedke, and Senate President Pro-Tem Chuck Winder over COVID-19 risks in the Statehouse.

Five stakeholders and two Idaho residents have negotiated a consent decree that will allow people with disabilities to testify remotely in public hearings and participate in activities at the Idaho Capitol while limiting their risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus.

The agreement, tabled on Thursday, includes a number of requirements for lawmakers, including hiring a third party to recommend improvements in digital access to meetings and documents. Legislature pays the third party fees, which cannot exceed $ 5,500.

In return, the plaintiffs promised not to sue the defendants for the remainder of this year’s ordinary legislative term.

“Nobody should have to choose between their health and their right to petition their government,” said Amy Cunningham, executive director of DisAbility Rights Idaho, in a press release Friday. “The Americans with Disabilities Act provides important safeguards and ensures that people with disabilities can receive the same government services as people without disabilities.”

Winder didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday. In a press release, the House Republican Caucus welcomed the decree of consent and the improvement in security.

“It wasn’t just lip service when I said we were going to make sure everyone can safely participate in the legislative process,” Bedke said. “We have faced the challenges of these troubled times and made important infrastructure improvements. We will continue to seek ways to make this process more accessible to all Idahoans.”

There have been a handful of publicly known COVID-19 cases at the statehouse, including a few lawmakers. Two senators tested positive for the virus last month.

The decree requires lawmakers to continue to provide safety protocols like an improved HVAC system, social distancing, HEPA air purifiers, as well as live streams and virtual access to meetings, as per documents filed with the U.S. District Court.

Committee chairs must “use reasonable efforts to create equal opportunities” for both personal and distant statements. It is currently at the discretion of the chairs to decide whether remote statements are permitted.

The lawsuit was filed in January by Wendy Olson of Stoel Rives LLP, a former US attorney in Idaho, and Elijah Watkins, also of Stoel Rives.

Two members of the Democratic House voluntarily dropped a separate lawsuit against Bedke and the legislature late last month. Her attorney, Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, told reporters they dropped the lawsuit because lawmakers had been vaccinated.

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