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Judge Denies Zooey Zephyr’s Legal Bid to Return to Montana House

The ruling is a “dangerous and undemocratic continuation” of GOP attempts to silence those who speak up, Zephyr said.

Rep. Zooey Zephyr does legislative work remotely.

A Montana judge on Tuesday rejected Rep. Zooey Zephyr’s legal bid to return to the state House, a decision that the transgender lawmaker decried as a “dangerous and undemocratic continuation” of Republicans’ attempts to silence anyone who speaks out against their attacks on marginalized groups and efforts to roll back basic rights.

Zephyr, who Montana Republicans silenced and barred from the state House floor after she warned lawmakers would have blood on their hands if they backed a ban on gender-affirming care for minors, said the ruling upholding the GOP’s move implies that “the Legislature isn’t beholden to the Constitution — that there is no right to free speech in the face of a supermajority.”

It also suggests that “two-thirds of a legislature could come together to silence any member, along with their constituents,” said Zephyr, the first openly trans woman elected to the Montana Legislature.

“This cannot be true: Legislators do not lose their right to free speech when they are elected, and my constituents should never lose their right to representation in the people’s house,” Zephyr continued. “I will exhaust every avenue to make sure the people who elected me receive their representation. If I cannot do it in the chamber, I will take it to the courts. And if my constituents are not granted their representation by the courts, I will take it to the ballot box.”

“There is an awakening happening in this country, where people are seeing how willing certain groups are to throw away democracy in pursuit of their ideological goals,” she added. “And I will stand alongside my constituents, my community, and the world as we seek to ensure that our democratic institutions survive these attacks.”

Earlier this week, the ACLU of Montana filed a lawsuit in state court arguing that the GOP’s censure of Zephyr violated her First Amendment rights and “the rights of her 11,000 constituents to representation in their state government.”

But Montana District Court Judge Mike Menahan, a former Democratic member of the Montana House, ruled Tuesday that overriding the Montana GOP “would require this court to interfere with legislative authority in a manner that exceeds this court’s authority.”

The Associated Press reported that Zephyr’s attorneys are considering an appeal.

“But with the 2023 legislative session ending, a ruling in coming days would be of little immediate consequence,” the outlet noted. “The punishment against Zephyr was through the end of the 2023 session. Since Montana’s Legislature convenes every two years, Zephyr would have to be reelected in 2024 before she could return to the House floor in two years.”

In an interview with TIME on Tuesday, Zephyr described her treatment at the hands of the Montana GOP as a manifestation of “broader growing extremism in the far-right,” which “will toss democratic principles to the side to accomplish ideological goals.”

Zephyr said she sees parallels between her censure and the recent expulsion of Tennessee state Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, who were temporarily removed from the state Legislature for showing solidarity with constituents protesting gun violence inside the House chamber.

Zephyr also pointed to the case of Oklahoma state Rep. Mauree Turner, a nonbinary Democratic lawmaker who was recently censured by their Republican colleagues.

Zephyr and Turner have both sounded the alarm over the GOP’s escalating attacks on trans people. According to one watchdog organization, Republicans in 14 states have approved anti-trans legislation so far this year.

Last week, Montana’s Republican governor signed into law a ban on gender-affirming care, ignoring a plea from his own son, who is nonbinary. The law, which resembles other measures advanced across the country, is set to take effect in October.

“I anticipate that there will be lawsuits before then,” Zephyr said Tuesday. “My expectation is that this law, which we know is cruel and gets trans kids killed, is unconstitutional.”

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