GOP leaders file suit to block N.J. Statehouse vaccine policy

Proof of vaccination or a negative virus test is now required to gain entry

By: - December 1, 2021 6:17 pm

The new policy that requires visitors to the Statehouse show proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test went into effect on Dec. 1. (Getty Images)

Republican lawmakers from both chambers filed a suit against the State Capitol Joint Management Commission Wednesday in a bid to block vaccine rules the panel approved last month.

The filing from Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Sussex) and Assemblyman John DiMaio (R-Warren), who will lead Republican caucuses in their respective chambers in the next legislative session, alleges the new rules requiring legislators to submit proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test to gain entry to the capitol unlawfully restricts the legislative process.

“Many Republicans in my caucus object to this new Statehouse policy because it is unfair to the public and is unconstitutional. Unfair because of how it affects the public from participating in the democratic process, and unconstitutional because the commission has no authority over how lawmakers legislate — especially in the Statehouse,” DiMaio said.

The policy approved by the commission, which is composed of four Murphy administration officials and leaders of both parties, would bar lawmakers and most members of the public from attending voting sessions, quorum calls, committee meetings, and other legislative business without showing proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken in the preceding seven days.

The rules allow members who are turned away for noncompliance to vote remotely.

The lawsuit, filed with the Superior Court’s Appellate Division, claims the rules violate a constitutional right to equal protection and provisions of the state Open Public Meetings Act by excluding unvaccinated individuals and legislators while accommodating vaccinated ones.

It alleges the commission overstepped its authority by enacting health policy, charging its mandate ended at maintaining the buildings of the capitol complex and asserting the Subcommittee on Legislative Branch Facility Management, and not the full body, has purview over buildings used exclusively for legislative business.

Republican leaders asked the case be heard on an emergent basis. Both chambers have voting sessions slated for Thursday, and some Republican members have planned to protest the policy.

“On a personal level, we’re deeply concerned about the unnecessary conflict the Democrats’ policy creates by turning the State Police who guard the Statehouse into the vaccine police,” Oroho said. “Our troopers have a hard enough job in the current environment without being forced unnecessarily into the middle of this extremely divisive and emotional issue. They deserve better.”

In a Nov. 30 opinion obtained by the New Jersey Monitor and first reported by the New Jersey Globe, Office of Legislative Services attorney Jason Krajewski wrote the constitution bars the New Jersey State Police from arresting members, citing passages of the constitution meant to prevent intimidation from the executive branch.

The state constitution explicitly disallows arrests for legislators within the chambers of either house or during any committee hearing, unless they commit treason and high misdemeanors.

On Monday, Gov. Phil Murphy criticized Republican anger over the policy as “ridiculous” and said any Statehouse visitor who is not vaccinated can take a rapid test on site.

“He’s actually got rapid tests at the Statehouse, so there’s no burden whatsoever on anybody outside of that, and I think anybody who is messing with this is being completely reckless. Looking at the numbers, they’re going up. Come on, man. Let’s not play politics,” he said.

Krajewski’s opinion did not attempt to determine the constitutionality of the statehouse’s vaccine policy, which went into effect Wednesday.

Michael Lavery, a former Republican state chairman, is representing the plaintiffs.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.

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