BILLINGS – The banning of Democratic Missoula Rep. Zooey Zephyr from the House floor has little precedent in modern Montana political history, according to political experts.
“I’ve seen many instances where someone is not recognized on the floor, or the chair of the body refuses to recognize someone for various reasons. It happens on occasion. It's not uncommon. People have been forced to apologize in the past for saying something on the floor that people regard as offensive, they’ve breached decorum. This situation is a little different,” said Mike Dennison, a former MTN News political reporter who covered the Montana Legislature for 30 years.
It’s different because Zephyr, Montana's first transgender lawmaker, is refusing to apologize for her statement last week on the House during debate over bills restricting healthcare for transgender youth: “...I hope the next time there is an invocation when you bow your head in prayer, you see the blood on your hands,” she said.
The Montana House of Representatives voted 68-32 Wednesday to discipline Zephyr on the House floor. She is banned from the House floor, the House anteroom, and the House gallery for the remainder of the session. She can still vote remotely.
The action came two days after a protest filled the House gallery and temporarily shut down the session. Seven people were arrested.
ACLU of Montana Legal Director Alex Rate says the group is considering the situation in terms of public policy and possible violations of free speech.
“In either event, I think there is sort of two ways to look at that. One is from a public policy perspective, which is to say, is this good, is the way we want to see our government operate. Meaning, that if there is an unpopular viewpoint that we are leaving that person out or forcibly removing them, and is this good for the people of Montana, who elected an official, in Representative Zephyr, to represent them in the body,” said Rate.
The House creates its own rules, but they must be enacted and enforced in line with the US and Montana constitutions.
“Those constitutions contain explicit protects for free speech that extend to legislative debate, even when that debate involves unpopular perspectives,” Rate said.
This move has no modern historical precedence in Montana. Two representatives were recently expelled from the Legislature in Tennessee, but they were reinstated through the appointment process to fill their vacant seats.
“There is legal recourse available through United States Supreme Court precedent to ask a judge to overrule the actions undertaken by the Montana house and ensure that she is allowed to speak in an unfettered manner or be reinstated in her seat,” Rate said.
Rate is citing the 1966 Bond v. Floyd decision.