A divided Colorado Supreme Court on Wednesday gave the General Assembly back the days it's losing from being on recess due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The Court ruled 4-3 in favor of those who said Article V, Section 7 of the state Constitution, which sets the legislative session at 120 days, doesn't spell out that those days are to be consecutive and can instead be considered separate working days.
In the majority opinion, Justice Monica Marquez wrote that if the intent of the drafters of the 1988 constitutional amendment who set the session at 120 days wanted those days to be consecutive, they could have added that word.
The constitutions of Alaska, Florida and Washington do include the word "consecutive" in describing the legislative session, Marquez pointed out.
The word consecutive is "conspicuously absent," the majority opinion said.
The constitution also doesn't spell out a set end date for the 120-day session, either, although it is very specific about when the session starts, the opinion added.
The Court disagreed with the claim that calendar days by definition meant "consecutive," pointing to the common understanding of the word "calendar." It's the time from midnight to midnight, the Court wrote.
The legislature unanimously adopted — at separate times — Joint Rules 23(d) and 44(g), "which together operate to count the 120 calendar days of a regular session consecutively except during a declared public health emergency disaster, in which case only days on which at least one chamber convenes count toward the 120-day maximum."
The rules "further promote the part-time, citizen legislature by providing crucial flexibility when a declared public health crisis renders it unsafe to meet to consider and debate legislation" the majority opinion stated. "Joint Rule 44(g) ensures that in the event of such a public health disaster emergency, citizen legislators do not have to choose between representing their constituents in the General Assembly and supporting their communities through the crisis at home."
The Court also agreed with the claim made by those who backed the interpretation that a special session is an "inadequate substitute" and potentially an unconstitutional one for a regular session. That's particularly important, given that at least 355 bills are awaiting final resolution, not to mention the not-yet introduced state budget for 2020-21.
Special sessions are to be reserved for limited purposes, the opinion said, rather than covering the wide variety of work left in the 2020 session.
The dissent, authored by Justice Carlos Samour, was backed by Chief Justice Nathan Coats and Justice Brian Boatright.
Samour wrote that Joint Rule 44(g) is unconstitutional because it amends Article V, Section 7. He also stated the term "calendar days" is not ambiguous and that a calendar day is defined as a "consecutive 24-hour" day running from midnight to midnight.
Lawmakers voted to adjourn on March 14 and until March 30.
On Monday, the House and Senate came back briefly and then adjourned again. The House was due to come back Thursday, but a news release from House Democrats said that has now been postponed, and did not identify a set date for a return.
Speaker of the House KC Becker of Boulder told Colorado Politics "we are are excited the decision came out in the way we hoped."
She said the Executive Committee of the Legislative Council, which is made up of the six leaders of both caucuses in both chambers, will meet soon to figure out what the decision means for the rest of the session.
March 14 was day 67. That leaves 53 days left in the 2020 regular session.
Becker said there are still questions about when it's safe to come back to the Capitol and reconvene as a General Assembly, in light of the continuing pandemic. She also raised the possibility that the General Assembly may not need all 53 days remaining.
Another task: figuring out the agenda for the remaining days of the session and the changing priorities due to the pandemic, including its impact on the state budget.
"It's been hard to proceed not knowing what the Supreme Court would do," Becker said.
Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert of Parker told Colorado Politics that "we are grateful to know the Court's opinion so that legislative leadership and all members of the General Assembly can determine how best to proceed in these most challenging times."
Note: This story has been edited to fix the identification of Justice Nathan Coats.