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Montana judge denies state Rep. Zooey Zephyr's request to return to House floor

Zephyr had sued challenging her censure for telling fellow lawmakers that supporting a bill to ban gender-affirming care would leave “blood” on their hands.
Rep. Zooey Zephyr looks on from the House floor during a session at the Montana State Capitol in Helena, Mont., on April 26, 2023.
Democratic state Rep. Zooey Zephyr during a session at the Montana State Capitol in Helena on April 26.Tommy Martino / AP

A Montana judge on Tuesday denied transgender state Rep. Zooey Zephyr's request for a court order allowing her to return to the House floor after she was barred by Republican colleagues over remarks on gender-affirming care legislation.

State District Judge Mike Menahan cited the separation of powers in ruling against Zephyr, a Democrat, and suggested that what she was seeking was outside the scope of the court's authority.

Zephyr blasted Menahan’s decision, calling it “dangerous and undemocratic.”

“What this ruling implies is that the legislature isn’t beholden to the constitution—that there is no right to free speech in the face of a supermajority,” she said in a statement. “I will stand alongside my constituents, my community, and the world as we seek to ensure that our democratic institutions survive these attacks.”

Menahan, a former Democratic legislator, ruled a day after Zephyr sued in state court challenging her censure for telling fellow lawmakers that a bill to ban gender-affirming care would leave “blood” on their hands. House Speaker Matt Regier has refused to let Zephyr speak on the floor without an apology.

The lawsuit, filed in part by the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, listed Regier and Sergeant-at-Arms Brad Murfitt as defendants and alleged that House leaders' actions violated Zephyr's First Amendment rights and the rights of her constituents to representation in their state government.

Regier welcomed the judge's ruling.

“The Montana courts have recognized that the Judicial Branch has no power to revise or overrule the power expressly held by the Montana State Legislature to conduct its business," Regier said in a statement. "The House is continuing its work for the people of Montana.”

Murfitt did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Menahan’s order and Zephyr’s statement.

State Attorney General Austin Knudsen, a Republican, said: “This lawsuit was nothing more than an attempt by outside groups to interfere with Montana’s lawmaking process. Today’s decision is a win for the rule of law and the separation of powers enshrined in our Constitution.”

Last week, Montana became one of more than a dozen states that have banned or restricted gender-affirming medical care for transgender kids as Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, signed into law the measure that Zephyr had opposed.

Alex Rate, the ACLU of Montana’s legal director, called the judge's ruling a “dark day for democracy” in the state.

“It feels like the bedrock principles of our democracy are under siege. And when two-thirds of a legislative body can vote to remove an individual and her 11,000 constituents from debate, it signals that minority viewpoints are not going to be heard,” Rate said.