Governing Under Coronavirus, State Legislature Contemplates Remote Meetings

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 (Jeff Turner/Flickr)

Meeting over platforms like Zoom has become the rage in this era of social distancing. With the California Legislature out until at least the beginning of May because of COVID-19, lawmakers are considering the possibility of meeting remotely.

The Legislature already had a full plate coming into the year, with issues like homelessness, housing and climate change looming large. But the pandemic has upended all of that, leaving lawmakers with a more basic question: how can they get anything done if they can’t even meet?

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said his office has looked into the possibility of voting remotely, but he's skeptical.

“We have provided for some remote testimony, but the constitution is pretty clear," he said. "Remote voting and remote legislating seems difficult without changing our state constitution.”

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Rendon is concerned about possible legal challenges against the state if remote voting went forward. He stresses lawmakers are continuing to work out of their district offices during the pandemic. And he said it would be wise to continue focusing on some other issues facing the state in addition to the coronavirus.

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But to do that, at least legislatively, hearings and votes need to take place. Loyola Law School Professor Jessica Levinson said there are legitimate concerns revolving around transparency and remote meetings.

The public must be notified of the meetings and given the opportunity to testify. But Levinson but doesn’t see anything in the State Constitution preventing remote sessions.

"In fact, what I see is the Constitution essentially envisions the idea that lawmakers will determine the best procedures for how they will conduct their business," she said.

Levinson's view is shared by the California Constitution Center. In a recent analysis, it argued the state Legislature can and should implement remote meetings.

"Just a few state constitutional provisions arguably bear on the question of where and how the California Legislature should conduct its business. None clearly bar remote meetings," the analysis reads.

The state Senate appears to support the idea. Before the recess, it passed a resolution allowing Senators to meet and vote remotely during emergencies.