If the Colorado Constitution requires you to read a 2,023-page bill out loud to the state Senate, can you set up six computers to read different sections of the bill at once, at the incomprehensible speed of 650 words per minute, and call it even?
Colorado Democrats say yes. Republicans say no.
The 2-year-old dispute over a stalling tactic used by the Republican minority in 2019 — and Democrats’ subsequent technological work-around — landed before the Colorado Supreme Court on Tuesday as the justices considered whether they should step into the political arena and define how legislators should behave to meet the state’s constitutional requirement that bills be read out loud in their entirety upon request.
The dispute began in 2019, when Republican Sen. John Cooke asked that a mundane but lengthy bill be read aloud — a procedural tactic intended to delay votes on other more controversial issues, like abolishing the death penalty.
The request is an important way the minority party can object and fight against the will of the majority, attorney John Zakhem said as he represented Cooke and other Republicans before the state Supreme Court.
Democrats violated the state’s Constitution when they sped up the process by using computers to read the bill, Zakhem said. The reading of bills should be intelligible, comprehensible and understandable to a reasonable listener, he said.
“Here we have a straightforward case,” he told the justices during the virtual argument. “It’s not a political question. In fact we would submit it is not a question at all. Read means read.”
But attorney Mark Grueskin, representing the Democrats, argued that the state Constitution doesn’t specify how a bill must be read, simply that it must be — and he said using the computers to speed up the process was the responsible use of legislators’ limited time.
“The bill was read,” he said, and that is all the state Constitution requires.
The justices questioned whether the courts have the jurisdiction to decide the issue or whether legislators should sort it out themselves, and wrestled with how to best define “read” during Tuesday’s argument.
“What is the limit? Can the bill be read in Latin, in Sanskrit?” Justice Richard Gabriel asked, adding later, “Common sense matters here… I’m having trouble understanding that uttering the words in any way possible is what the Constitution says.”
Zakhem argued that the reading was not meant to be like “a gaggle of turkeys at feeding time,” but Justice William Hood questioned him about the reasonableness of even requesting the reading to begin with.
“Common sense also suggests that reading a 2,000-plus page bill at length in the manner you are suggesting would strike most people as ridiculous,” he said.
The justices will consider the arguments and issue a ruling in the coming months.
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