Judge denies GOP request to halt COVID-19 capitol mandate

To mask or not. The national debate takes place in Trenton.

| 13 Dec 2021 | 01:34

A New Jersey judge denied a Republican request to halt a requirement to provide proof of a COVID-19 vaccine or a negative test to enter the statehouse building.

The ruling doesn’t look likely to be the final word on the matter, as the judge also set an April 2022 hearing date to consider arguments. The requirement was still firmly in effect at the statehouse this week.

The GOP challenge, brought by incoming Republican legislative leaders Assembly member John DiMaio and Sen. Steven Oroho, sought to block a mandate for proof of vaccination or a negative test set by a joint commission that manages the statehouse complex.

But, as the judge noted in her order, the Democratic leaders who run the statehouse have declared separate but similar COVID-19 rules, which the Republican suit did not challenge.

``As the rules issued by the Legislature’s presiding officers on December 2, 2021, make clear any stay issued by the court will not provide plaintiffs interim relief, the motion for stay is denied,’’ Appellate Division Judge Allison Accurso wrote.

Oroho said in a statement he was ``disappointed that arguments are going to be delayed when it seems clear’’ the commission went beyond its authority.

``This isn’t just about legislators,” he said. “It’s about ensuring the rights of citizens to have access to their government,’’ he said.

The judge’s order follows confusion last week when roughly a dozen Republican Assembly members sought to enter the voting chamber without showing the required proof or test. State police initially blocked them, but eventually permitted them to enter. No explanation has been given.

Since then, security around the statehouse to implement the vaccine-or-test requirement has increased substantially, with troopers setting up checkpoints at entryways across the complex.

It’s unclear what Republicans who oppose the order will do Monday when committee hearings are set to resume in person in the Assembly. A voting session set for Dec. 16 has been moved to Dec. 20.

Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy lashed out at Republicans this week over their defiance of the requirement, calling it ``idiocy.`` But he declined to explain why troopers permitted lawmakers who did not follow the requirement into the Assembly chamber.

Friday’s order follows an earlier court order that permitted the GOP challenge to advance. Republicans had hailed it as a victory at the time, though the new ruling amounts to a setback.

Murphy won’t explain troopers’ role in capitol confusion
New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy shot down questions about why state police failed to enforce a statehouse requirement last week that people show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test, citing a reluctance to discuss security measures.
Murphy spoke during a remote news conference on the virus, his first comments since Republican lawmakers’ defied the requirement Thursday. But he declined to address specific questions about why troopers first blocked but then permitted lawmakers who flouted the mandate from entering the Assembly chamber.
It’s unclear what happened during the confusion last week when Assembly GOP members shouted ``This is America’’ when they were stopped, only to be let in the chamber. State police have also said they will not discuss security at the statehouse complex.
Murphy’s administration oversees the state police who are in charge of enforcing the mandate in the statehouse complex, though the requirement itself was set by the Democrats who control the Legislature as well as a commission that manages the buildings.
Murphy, who won reelection last month, said they wouldn’t get into questions concerning security and launched into an attack on GOP lawmakers over their defiance of the vaccination or negative test mandate.
``The big story from last week is not about security it’s about the idiocy of these ringleaders who are putting their fellow members’ health and families of their fellow members at risk,’’ he said. ``This is not about freedom or civil rights. It’s about their willingness to volitionally run the risk of infecting innocent law-abiding folks who have done the right thing during this pandemic. It’s outrageous, absolutely outrageous, incredibly irresponsible, unforgivable.’’
Republican Assembly member Hal Wirths, one of the lawmakers who entered the chamber without showing vaccination proof or a negative test, called it ``absolutely outrageous`` that Murphy said it’s not about civil rights.
``If we don’t need a vaccination card to buy groceries, we don’t need a vaccination card to do our constitutional duty,`` he said, referring to voting.
The confusing scene on Thursday led to an increase of enforcement of the requirement around the statehouse: with orange barriers erected to funnel visitors to checkpoints and troopers patrolling typically little-used entryways.