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Lima, Filippi to submit bill and seek court opinion to enable General Assembly to meet virtually
Saying that the General Assembly needs to begin sessions as soon as possible, Deputy Speaker Charlene M. Lima and Minority Leader Blake Filippi will introduce a bill allowing the General Assembly to meet in video conferencing (such as Zoom), and at the same time ask for a Supreme Court advisory opinion as to the constitutionality of the legislation. They will also request that the Supreme Court expedite the matter so that a decision will be in place before the 2021 session convenes in January.
Representative Lima (D-Dist. 14, Cranston, Providence) said, “With COVID rising, it is imperative that we know if the General Assembly can meet constitutionally via video conference. If COVID makes it impossible to meet in person, the quickest and most legally sound path for this is by asking for an advisory opinion.”
Representative Filippi (R-Dist. 36, New Shoreham, Charlestown, South Kingstown, Westerly) said, "It is essential that the General Assembly get back to work on behalf of our businesses and our citizens and give necessary oversight to COVID-related decisions affecting their lives."
The legislation would give the speaker of the House the authority to call for video conferencing of the House sessions in times of emergency when meeting in person would not be possible. It would give the same authority regarding the Senate to the Senate president, said Representative Lima and Filippi.
A 1937 court decision [191 A. 269 (R.I. 1937) 58 R.I. 51] seems to establish that the court did not have to issue an advisory opinion sought by a majority of the representatives, since the General Assembly did not "convene" when its members sought it. This suggests that convening is necessary, and then the legal question becomes "what is convening?" Does meeting via video conferencing constitute “convening?"
Additionally, Article IX Section 7 of the Rhode Island Constitution says: “The governor may, on extraordinary occasions, convene the general assembly at any town or city in this state, at any time not provided for by law; and in case of danger from the prevalence of epidemic or contagious disease, in the place in which the general assembly is by law to meet, or to which it may have been adjourned, or for other urgent reasons, the governor may by proclamation convene said assembly at any other place within this state. “
This also raises the question of whether a “place” can mean a video conferencing session where representatives are not in one place, but rather in 75 different places.
The fact that the state consititution uses "place" and not "places" could be interpreted that the General Assembly must meet in one place together. The language in the 1937 case also seems to indicate one "place."
“In any event, it is so open to interpretation that if the General Assembly were to convene or meet via video conferencing, anything we pass might be open for a legal court challenge, causing havoc," said Representative Lima.
"Because of all these possible legal challenges to video conferencing of General Assembly sessions, it is imperative that we get an advisory opinion from our Supreme Court," said Representative Filippi.
For more information, contact:
Legislative Press Bureau
State House Room 20
Providence, RI 02903
Lt. Governor's Office
Secretary of State
Link to Public Records Request