Montana Rep. Zooey Zephyr, a Democrat censured last week by Republicans in the state House, is suing her state and its House speaker over her punishment.
Zephyr, along with three of her constituents who are also a part of the suit, argues the Legislature took retaliatory and unlawful action against her for engaging in speech protected under federal law.
Montana House Republicans last week voted to censure Zephyr, barring her from the House floor, anteroom and gallery for the remaining nine days of Montana’s legislative session. She has the option to participate remotely, but only by voting.
The lawsuit, filed Monday in state court, argues House Republicans, including Speaker Matt Regier, violated her rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and disenfranchised the 11,000 Montanans Zephyr was elected to represent when they voted to prevent Zephyr from participating in legislative debate.
“Voters elect their Representatives to do more than simply vote on bills,” Monday’s lawsuit states. ”Representatives also are elected to use of the floor of the House to pursue their constituents’ interests and views — using the platform provided by the People’s House to educate and persuade their colleagues and the public through speech, debate, and lobbying.
“Defendants’ lawless silencing and Censure of Representative Zooey Zephyr extinguishes a vital part of the job her constituents elected her to do,” the lawsuit adds.
Zephyr, one of the state’s first openly transgender lawmakers, has faced calls for her censure since late last month, when she said lawmakers who voted to pass a bill to ban gender-affirming health care for transgender youths would have “blood on your hands.”
“If you are forcing a trans child to go through puberty when they are trans, that is tantamount to torture. This body should be ashamed,” Zephyr said last month on the House floor. The bill, Senate Bill 99, was signed into law late last week by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, three days after Zephyr was censured.
State House and Senate Republicans immediately following Zephyr’s remarks demanded she be censured for attempting to shame members of the Legislature by using “inappropriate and uncalled-for language.”
In the week leading up to Zephyr’s censure, Regier refused to recognize Zephyr for debate on a single bill and deactivated her microphone.
“This effort by House leadership to silence me and my constituents is a disturbing and terrifying affront to democracy itself,” Zephyr said Monday in a statement released by her attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana.
“House leadership explicitly and directly targeted me and my district because I dared to give voice to the values and needs of transgender people like myself,” she said. “By doing so, they’ve denied me my own rights under the Constitution and, more importantly, the rights of my constituents to just representation in their own government. The Montana State House is the people’s House, not Speaker Regier’s, and I’m determined to defend the right of the people to have their voices heard.”
Regier did not return a request for comment.
The vote to censure Zephyr comes just over a month after Republicans in Oklahoma voted to censure Democratic Rep. Mauree Turner, the nation’s first openly nonbinary state legislator, after Turner allowed a protestor at the capitol to use their office following an arrest.
In Nebraska last week, Democratic Sen. Megan Hunt, the mother of a transgender child, said she was being investigated for a potential conflict of interest after she voted against a bill that would ban gender-affirming health care for minors.
Two Black Democratic state lawmakers — Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson — were expelled from Tennessee’s GOP-controlled legislature in March after they joined a protest at the capitol calling for stronger gun laws.
Both legislators have since been reinstated. State Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is white and protested alongside Jones and Pearson, was not expelled.
“This is performance litigation – political activism masquerading as a lawsuit,” said Emily Flower, press secretary for Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen in criticizing the suit.
“The ACLU is trying to use the courts to interfere with the legislature as it carries out its constitutional duties on behalf of Montanans. Any relief granted by the court would be a gross violation of the separation of powers.”
Updated at 3:37 p.m.