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Appeals court rejects lawsuit over House fines for mask rule

A lower court was right to dismiss the lawsuit under the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution, the D.C. Circuit found

Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., attends a House Rules Committee meeting in May.
Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., attends a House Rules Committee meeting in May. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A federal appeals court in Washington swatted down a lawsuit Friday from three House Republicans who faced fines for violating a pandemic-era rule that required members to wear a mask on the House floor.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by Republican Reps. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Ralph Norman of South Carolina.

The lawmakers filed the legal challenge against then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House officials in 2021 after they were each fined $500.

With the coronavirus pandemic still raging, the Democratic-controlled House in January 2021 agreed to a resolution to fine a member $500 for the first failure to wear a mask on the chamber floor and $2,500 for each subsequent failure. The resolution also allowed the House to deduct the fines from the net salary of the member.

House officials in a court filing said all three members entered the House chamber without wearing a mask in May 2021. The lawsuit brought by Republicans said the members went to the floor without masks to protest.

The appellate court on Friday said the lower court was right to dismiss the lawsuit. The D.C. Circuit cited the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution, which has been interpreted to give members of Congress criminal and civil immunity for legislative acts that are done as part of their official responsibilities.

“The Speaker, Sergeant-at-Arms, and Chief Administrative Officer have immunity from suit because the adoption and execution of the Resolution are legislative acts protected by the Speech or Debate Clause,” the D.C. Circuit opinion states.

In November 2022, questions from the appellate judges expressed skepticism that courts had the power to tell members how to run the House, which was part of the reason why a district court threw out the lawsuit.

An attorney for the Republican members argued the fines deducted from the pay of the three members violate the 27th Amendment, which prohibits a law that changes lawmaker compensation until after an election.

Douglas Letter, then-general counsel to the House, argued that the chamber has a long history of imposing fines for rule violations, and said it would be a “remarkable ruling” to step in on the House’s ability to fine its own members.

Earlier this month, Massie cited the lawsuit when he said he would vote with Democrats to table a resolution to censure Democratic Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California because a fine included in it would violate the Eighth and 27th amendments.

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