STERLING, CO – April 7, 2020 – The Colorado Supreme Court has decided with a 4-to-3 vote that when the Governor declares an emergency, Colorado’s Constitution can be ignored.
The Majority found that the amendment to the Constitution detailing legislative session length is ambiguous, and that the legislative rule applied when the Governor declared a health emergency could be followed instead of the Constitution. That’s right: a joint rule of the General Assembly has been found to be superior, legally, to the Constitution.
Here’s what the Constitution says: regular sessions of the general assembly shall not exceed one hundred and twenty calendar days.
Seems fairly clear to this country boy.
This amendment was approved by the voters in the 1980s, and it was meant to give the citizens of Colorado the surety of knowing when the legislature would adjourn sine die. When then-Senator Wayne Allard and Representative Chris Paulson referred the measure to the voters, Paulson explained that “it would limit both sessions of the legislature to 120 consecutive calendar days.”
Justice Samour’s written dissent cites the legal dictionary definition that clarifies “calendar days” is meant to be consecutive days, including weekends and federal holidays. There really should have been no question about it. The Constitution is supreme, no legislative rule should ever be allowed to supersede it. The decision should have been 7-0: the Colorado General Assembly ought to be finished by May 6th this year, the day that marks 120 days from the start of the session.
What might be even more disturbing is the precedent set by this finding. If a legislative rule is superior to the Constitution during a declared emergency, what other constitutionally protected rights could be ignored during the emergency? Does this give Democrats the idea that they can ignore TABOR and raise our taxes without asking your permission? It’s an emergency after all, and they might decide they need your money more than you do. What about our right to purchase firearms; might they decide that during this emergency they need to restrict purchase of guns for some invented safety concern? At this point it seems none of your rights are secure.
We, the members of the General Assembly, really should go back to Denver before the end of April to do our essential work as safely as possible. We need to make provisions for citizens to testify remotely so they can still participate, and then adjourn. A special session can be called either by us or the Governor to do any other work deemed necessary and important, if not quite ‘essential.’ We ask healthcare workers, farmers, ranchers, truckers, prison guards and grocery store employees to do their essential work wisely; we should do the same ourselves.
The Colorado Supreme Court made a tremendous mistake with this 4-to-3 finding. I trust that they will get a chance to revisit the subject, and I think it would be best for the majority party in the legislature to be cautious when it comes to any legislation passed after May 6th. I am confident that legislation which passes after the end of 120 calendar days will be challenged and ultimately, this Supreme Court will get to revisit the question – this time in a much more rigorous and formal setting than a mere interrogatory.
Jerry Sonnenberg is a Farmer/Rancher and State Senator from Sterling, Colorado.