Court Upholds Legislative Stalling Tactic, Says Bill Readings Can Not Be Reduced To A ‘Cacophony’

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Gallery of the Presidents on the third floor of the Colorado state Capitol Rotunda. The Colorado General Assembly opened its 2021 session on Wednesday, Jan. 13.

The Colorado Supreme Court has sided with Republicans in a ruling that will preserve a stalling tactic used by the GOP in recent years at the state legislature.

The justices found that Democrats violated a provision in the state constitution when they used computers to speed things up after a Republican state senator asked for a massive bill to be read aloud in its entirety.

Legislative rules allow any state lawmaker to request that a bill be read at length before it’s voted on. It’s one of the few ways members of the party in the minority can slow down the legislative process.

The state supreme court did not tell the legislature how to comply with the legal requirement, but did conclude Democrats crossed a legal line in 2019 when they transferred the reading of the bill from human staff to a bank of computers set to read different sections of the legislation simultaneously at 650 words per minute. The moment led to a truly bizarre chipmunk-like sound emanating throughout the Senate chamber.

“There are unquestionably different ways by which the legislature may comply with the reading requirement. But the cacophony generated by the computers here isn’t one of them,” wrote the court, adding that the sounds were unintelligible. 

“We are grateful that the Colorado Supreme Court sided with us in ruling that what occurred on March 11, 2019, was not constitutional,” said Sage Naumann, a spokesman for Colorado Senate Republicans. “We stand ready to work with the majority to establish clear, constitutional guidelines for the reading of bills on the floor moving into the future.”

In 2019, Republicans, angry at how quickly Democrats leaders were moving a major oil and gas bill through the legislature, asked that a different bill — a 1565-page compilation of technical revisions to various Colorado laws — be read at length. Fulfilling that request would have taken a week, and ground all other work by the chamber to a halt. 

Senate rules do not say anything explicitly about whether a bill reading must be understandable — and clerks often drone their way through them at top speed. But in this case Senate President Leroy Garcia decided to try and speed up the process even more, via automation.

On Monday, Garcia said he was “obviously disappointed” with the ruling.

“Partisan games and delay tactics frequent Washington’s playbook, not Colorado’s. And though we’ve sadly seen our fair share of wrench-throwing, I am encouraged by how far we’ve come over the last few years,” he said.

Garcia added that he hopes the minority won’t feel the need for such tactics in the future.

Demanding a bill reading is usually a fairly symbolic gesture — Republican U.S Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin recently used the same tactic in Congress, requiring clerks to read the 628-page American Rescue Act at length before it could pass.

But in Colorado, at certain points during the four-month legislative session when deadlines are especially tight, having enough bills read at length can have a significant impact on the pace of legislation, and determine what may ultimately pass or fail.

While Colorado’s highest court said the bank of high-speed computers did not comply with the requirement, it reversed a lower court decision that laid out guidelines for how the legislature might legally read a bill at length. 

“By prescribing how the legislature must comply with the reading requirement, the district court trespassed upon the separation-of-powers tenet so essential to our constitutional system of government,” the justices wrote.