The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana filed a lawsuit in state court on Monday challenging the censure of Rep. Zooey Zephyr, a Democrat and Montana’s first transgender state legislator.
The lawsuit alleges the actions taken by Montana’s Republican-led House of Representatives to silence Zephyr are a violation of her First Amendment rights.
“By depriving Representative Zephyr of her right to freely engage with the legislative process, Defendants have also deprived her 11,000 constituents of the right to full representation in their government,” the lawsuit states. “Defendants’ lawless silencing and Censure of Representative Zooey Zephyr extinguishes a vital part of the job her constituents elected her to do.”
The suit lists the state of Montana; Rep. Matt Regier, speaker of the Montana House; and Bradley Murfitt, sergeant-at-arms of the Montana House, as defendants.
A spokesperson for Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen called the case "political activism masquerading as a lawsuit."
“The ACLU is trying to use the courts to interfere with the legislature as it carries out its constitutional duties on behalf of Montanans," Emily Flower, Knudsen's press secretary, said in an email. "Any relief granted by the court would be a gross violation of the separation of powers.”
State Rep. Zooey Zephyr on her continued fight for trans rightsMay 1, 202300:33
Zephyr was officially censured on Thursday but has been barred from speaking during House debates since April 20.
The first action against Zephyr stemmed from her vocal opposition to a bill banning gender-affirming care for minors, which was signed into law Friday by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte. On April 18, while debating the bill, Zephyr told colleagues who supported the measure that they had blood on their hands, alluding to studies that show gender-affirming care can reduce suicide rates in transgender youths.
But Zephyr’s official censure followed a demonstration in the House gallery last Monday, where seven people were arrested for protesting in support of the silenced lawmaker.
“Monday, this body witnessed one of its members participating in conduct that disrupted and disturbed the orderly proceedings of this body ... placing legislators, staff and even our pages at risk of harm,” said Republican House Majority Leader Sue Vintin before Wednesday’s vote to temporarily expel Zephyr.
Zephyr will be banished from the House floor for the rest of the 2023 session, which ends May 5, and will only be allowed to vote remotely.
Zephyr called her censure “a disturbing and terrifying affront to democracy itself,” according to a statement Monday by the ACLU 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,” Zephyr added. “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.”
Four residents of Montana House District 100, the district Zephyr represents, are listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
“I feel alienated and disenfranchised to have my representative expelled from debate,” Dean Chou, one of the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “I believe Representative Zephyr has done an effective job advocating for my interests and my rights on all issues, and I want Representative Zephyr to continue to do so.”
Since Zephyr’s censure, four bills awaiting votes in the committees on which Zephyr sits were either transferred to a different committee or elevated to the House floor, effectively eliminating all public committee hearings in which she was scheduled to participate, according to the ACLU.
The ACLU and its Montana chapter have also announced a promise to challenge the recently passed gender-affirming care law.