Colorado legislature can resume its regular session after breaking for coronavirus, Supreme Court rules

Colorado lawmakers don’t have to meet for 120 consecutive days during a declared public health emergency, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in a narrow decision Wednesday.

The General Assembly’s regular legislative session is limited to 120 days, and was scheduled to conclude May 6. However, lawmakers suspended the session March 14 because of the coronavirus pandemic after Gov. Jared Polis declared a state of emergency. They asked the Supreme Court to weigh in on whether they could resume the more than 50 days left of the session at a later date or be forced to end in May.

Voters approved a constitutional amendment in the 1980s that limited the session to 120 days, and the General Assembly adopted a rule that those days have to run consecutively. However, in 2009, the General Assembly adopted another emergency rule — in the wake of the H1N1 flu epidemic — that allows the legislature to count only “working calendar days” if the governor declares a state of emergency. That rule had never been triggered until now, according to the Supreme Court decision.

The Colorado Constitution is vague on whether the days must be consecutive, and the General Assembly’s rules make it clear that they should be except in a declared public health emergency that disrupts the session, Colorado Supreme Court Justice Monica Márquez wrote for the majority in the 4-3 decision. Chief Justice Nathan Coats, Justice Brian Boatright and Justice Carlos Samour Jr. dissented.

House Speaker KC Becker, a Boulder Democrat, welcomed the news Wednesday evening.

“It gives the legislature the ability to respond to the COVID crisis and take our time until some of it has subsided to finish our work,” Becker said. “I think it’s the right decision for Colorado.”

All 40 Republican lawmakers had signed onto a brief to the Supreme Court arguing that the days should be consecutive. Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert told The Denver Post the argument that the days must be consecutive had support based on the split decision, but now it’s a matter of moving forward.

“We are grateful to know the Court’s opinion so that legislative leadership and all members of the General Assembly can determine how best to proceed in these most challenging times,” said Holbert, R-Parker, in a statement.

Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, said in a statement that Colorado’s leaders are elected to serve the community, including in times of hardship, and the Supreme Court decision will allow that to continue while also maintaining public safety measures.

“Counting legislative days consecutively during this state of emergency would have been devastating for the people of Colorado,” he said.

It’s still unclear exactly when legislators will return to the Capitol. House lawmakers had extended the recess to Thursday, but House Majority Leader Alec Garnett said lawmakers will presume they are adjourned day to day based on legal advice and for everyone’s safety as the Senate had called for earlier this week.

Now that lawmakers have the court’s determination, they will have more decisions to make about priorities. They still have to balance the budget and pass the School Finance Act in June, but this gives lawmakers time to hear from members of the public about their needs, Becker said.

House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, said he hopes Democratic lawmakers who are in the majority in both chambers won’t go back to all the same priorities they had before the crisis.

“I think we need to look at everything from a different lens from here on out,” Neville said. “We have major implications (from coroanvirus) on the budget and economy and everything else.”

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