By AMY BETH HANSON and MATTHEW BROWN
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Rep. Zooey Zephyr, the transgender Montana lawmaker who was silenced after telling Republicans they would have blood on their hands for opposing gender-affirming health care for kids, cannot return to the statehouse House floor and participate in debate, a judge ruled Tuesday.
The ruling came after attorneys for the state of Montana asked the judge to reject Zephyr’s attempt to return. She was silenced two weeks ago then banished last week for admonishing Republican lawmakers and encouraging a raucous statehouse protest.
District Court Judge Mike Menahan said it was outside his authority to overrule the Legislature and return Zephyr to the House floor.
Such a move “would require this court to interfere with legislative authority in a manner that exceeds this court’s authority,” Menahan wrote in his five-page ruling.
Zephyr told The Associated Press that the decision was “entirely wrong.”
“It’s a really sad day for the country when the majority party can silence representation from the minority party whenever they take issue,” Zephyr said.
Lawyers working under Attorney General Austin Knudsen cautioned that any intervention by the courts on Zephyr’s behalf would be a blatant violation of the separation of powers. They wrote in a court filing that the Montana House of Representatives retains “exclusive constitutional authority” to discipline its own members.
Knudsen, a Republican, issued a statement through a spokesperson saying the lawsuit was an attempt by outside groups to interfere with Montana’s lawmaking process.
”Today’s decision is a win for the rule of law and the separation of powers enshrined in our Constitution,” he said.
An attorney for Zephyr, Alex Rate, said an appeal was being considered. But the 2023 legislative session is nearing its end, so a ruling in coming days would be of little immediate consequence.
Zephyr and several of her Missoula constituents on Monday filed court papers seeking an emergency order allowing her to return to the House floor for the final days of the 2023 legislative session.
Zephyr and fellow Democrats have denounced her exclusion from floor debates as an assault on free speech that’s intended to silence her criticism of new restrictions on gender-affirming care for minors.
But lawyers for the state said the censure of Zephyr by her Republican colleagues was “for good cause” following the April 24 demonstration by her supporters.
“One legislator cannot be allowed to halt the ability of the other 99 to engage in civil, orderly, debate concerning issues affecting Montana,” the state’s lawyers wrote.
GOP leaders under pressure from hard-line conservatives initially silenced Zephyr from participating in floor debates and demanded she apologize almost two weeks ago, after she said those who supported a ban on gender-affirming care for youths would have “blood” on their hands.
On April 24, Zephyr raised a microphone in defiance on the House floor as protesters in the gallery demanded she be allowed to speak and refused orders to leave. Seven people were arrested on trespassing charges and two days later lawmakers voted along party lines to oust Zephyr from the floor and gallery for the remainder of the session.
She’s since been working from a bench in a hallway and, when that’s been occupied, at a statehouse snack bar.
The actions taken against Zephyr have propelled her into political prominence and made her part of broader conversations about the muffling of dissent in statehouses. But in Montana, Republicans hope to capitalize on her high profile by painting Democrats as a party of extremists headed into the next election.
The lawsuit seeking to reverse her punishment was filed by attorneys working for the Montana ACLU. It named House Speaker Matt Regier and Sergeant-at-Arms Brad Murfitt as defendants.