Updated at 6:04 p.m. on Monday, January 8, 2024.
The Speaker of Colorado’s House, Julie McCluskie, has sent a formal letter of reprimand admonishing a fellow Democrat, Rep. Elisabeth Epps of Denver, for, among other things, joining a pro-Palestinian protest in the House gallery and disrupting proceedings during a special legislative session late last year.
The letter lists six House rules McCluskie said Epps violated, and warns her that any repeat of her behavior could lead to “further disciplinary action” by the House.
The reprimand comes just days before state lawmakers are set to return to the capitol for the annual legislative session, which begins Wednesday.
“It is my expectation that you will uphold the honor and dignity of elected office and this institution, and engage with members in civil and respectful ways,” wrote McCluskie.
The incident during the special session started when Epps attempted to add an amendment to a bill about federal food benefits that would have prevented them from being used to purchase products made in the Palestinian territories.
According to reports of the situation, Epps concluded her remarks on the amendment with the words “Free Palestine!” She then joined pro-Palestinian protesters who had been watching the day’s debate from the balcony around the House chamber.
When GOP Rep. Ron Weinberg, who is Jewish, took the lecturn to respond, Epps and others shouted down at him, interrupting his remarks. Democratic leaders called on state patrol to clear the galleries, and Epps eventually left after other members of her caucus went up to speak with her.
In her letter to Epps, McCluskie wrote that the representative engaged in numerous actions during the special session that were significantly disruptive to House business and caused delays, and engaged in disrespectful behaviors which “failed to uphold the honor and dignity of our democratic institution.”
McCluskie released the letter to all of the House members on Monday afternoon, including Epps. CPR News has reached out to Epps for a response and will update with any comment.
In the weeks since the special session, Epps has defended her actions on social media and criticized leadership for “punishing victims and protecting abusers”, saying that she has been called vile things by some of her Republican colleagues.
“Decorum is just one of your racist dog whistles for complacency + complicity” she posted on the social media site X, formerly known as Twitter, in response to a tweet from a fellow Democratic representative.
McCluskie has disputed the claim that decorum rules are applied unevenly. She told CPR News she plans to release a set of decorum guidelines in the coming weeks to help lawmakers navigate when they may be saying something that crosses the line.
Some House Republicans said they were glad Epps was formally reprimanded, but that it’s not likely to quiet calls for more significant punishment.
“The disruptive actions of one member of the House, especially those that target the religious beliefs of another representative, must never be tolerated,” wrote House Minority Leader Mike Lynch on social media. “There is a clear case this action warrants a vote of censure on the House floor.”
A history of disagreements
Epps, who took office last January, has been at odds with House leadership and the Speaker for a while on a variety of issues.
On the final day of the 2023 session, tensions flared in a Democratic caucus meeting. Several members, including Epps, criticized the Speaker directly, saying she failed to take action against racist and inappropriate comments on the chamber floor and didn’t do enough to support brown and Black lawmakers, especially the Black women in the caucus. During the meeting, Epps noted that she hadn’t talked to the Speaker in three months and said she didn’t think McCluskie calls out the “nonsense” from the other side of the aisle.
“It is predictable at this point. And it's not just what happens on the floor, (it’s) what's happening off,” she said.
Over the summer, Epps and another Democratic representative, Rep. Bob Marshall of Highlands Ranch, filed a lawsuit against their leadership over alleged violations of open meetings laws. Their suit was eventually withdrawn after leaders, including McCluskie, agreed to changes.
The letter of reprimand was not McCluskie’s first move against Epps. Late last year she removed both Epps and Marshall from the powerful Judiciary Committee.
“Serving on a member’s top choice of committee is a privilege — not a right,” McCluskie said in a statement about her decision, which she said was made to decrease acrimony on the committee.
“My decisions on where to appoint members depend on their respect of their colleagues, ability to collaborate and adherence to decorum, which was clearly violated during our special session last month,” McCluskie continued.
More recently, Epps was reassigned offices, from a plum space in the state capitol to a different office, a move she also took as retaliation.
“it hurts what Dems + speaker of the house are doing to me bc I won’t be silent or complicit—expelled me from judiciary cmte, now from my physical (not elected) office,” Epps tweeted on Jan. 2. “Yet it’s right in line with what bipartisan establishment is doing to other Black women. I’m not quitting, tho.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly described the location of Epp’s current office. It has been corrected.
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