UPDATE: 6:15 p.m. - April 26, 2023
HELENA - A Democratic state representative from Missoula will not be allowed on the Montana House floor for the remaining two weeks of the legislative session, after Republicans in the House voted to discipline her for her actions during a disruptive protest this week.
“If you use decorum to silence people who hold you accountable, then all you are doing is using decorum as a tool of oppression,” said Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, speaking in her defense ahead of the House’s vote on Wednesday.
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House Majority Leader Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, made a motion to bar Zephyr from the House floor, anteroom and gallery through the end of the session, claiming she had violated “the rules, collective rights, safety, dignity, integrity, and decorum of the House of Representatives.”
“Monday, this body witnessed one of its members participating in conduct that disrupted and disturbed the orderly proceedings of this body,” said Vinton.
The Montana Constitution gives the House the authority to “expel or punish a member for good cause” if two-thirds of the chamber agrees. Republicans hold a two-thirds supermajority in the House, and all 68 GOP members supported the motion. All 32 Democrats voted no.
Zephyr will be allowed to participate remotely in floor sessions through the end of the session, but only to vote – not to speak.
This step is the culmination of an issue that began last week, when House Speaker Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, decided on several consecutive days not to recognize Zephyr on the floor. Regier said he was concerned Zephyr, a transgender woman, would not maintain decorum, after she said lawmakers should be ashamed and would have “blood on your hands” over a bill that would ban gender-affirming medical procedures for transgender youth.
On Monday, demonstrators protesting Regier’s decision shouted and chanted “Let her speak!” in the House gallery, disrupting a debate on the floor. Law enforcement eventually cleared the gallery and arrested seven protestors for refusing to leave.
Throughout the protest, Zephyr remained at her desk, holding her microphone over her head. Republicans pointed to that behavior as contributing to the disorder.
Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, said Republicans had varying opinions on how to respond to Zephyr’s earlier statements, but they agreed about what happened Monday.
“The representative had other options,” he said. “One was to join other legislators by leaving the floor, as was directed by the speaker. Another would have been to try to calm the crowd. The representative from House District 100 chose neither. And so here we are.”
When Zephyr received five minutes to speak in opposition to the motion, it was her first time speaking on the floor since last week. She said the people protesting were trying to have their voices heard, since she – their elected representative – wasn’t recognized on the floor.
“I raised my microphone to amplify their voices, to make sure that the people who elected me here are heard – and that when this body seeks to pass bills that harm our community, that get us killed, that this body is held accountable,” she said.
Zephyr said she stood behind her original statements about the bill on gender-affirming care – and a number of other bills this session that she believes have been harmful to the LGBTQ community.
“When the speaker asks me to apologizes on behalf of decorum, what he is really asking me to do is be silent when my community is facing bills that get us killed,” she said. “He is asking me to be complicit in this legislature's eradication of our community, and I refuse to do so – and I will always refuse to do so.”
After Wednesday’s vote, Regier spoke to reporters and defended his response to Zephyr’s remarks.
“You don't demean people's votes, where they're going, their motives or reasons for why they're voting the way that they are voting – and we saw that happen this go-round,” he said. “That's a major breach of decorum that in the past has been acknowledged by both sides.”
Regier said he saw this disciplinary motion as a fair response, saying Zephyr would still be able to participate and vote on behalf of her constituents, but that some action needed to be taken to ensure what happened Monday doesn’t happen again.
“It is me as the speaker, just protecting the dignity and safety and integrity of the House no matter what – no matter what happens,” he said. “We can't have that kind of behavior on the floor moving forward.”
But House Minority Leader Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said the motion was an “extreme action” that could have been avoided.
“I will just say that this is beyond our rules, and this is about a broader principle of representative democracy,” she said. “There are other avenues to maintain order, and they chose to ignore those avenues and to take this one.”
After the vote, Zephyr spoke to a group of reporters about her reaction.
“When you stand up for your principles, when you stand up for your community, when you stand up for democracy, no matter what the vote comes out, you leave feeling like you did the right thing,” she said. “And that's what I feel today. I stood up for my constituents who elected me here and I stood up for democracy.”
The House is set to have its next floor session Thursday, starting at 8 a.m. Zephyr will presumably be voting remotely.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated. Original post is below.
Missoula Democratic Rep. Zooey Zephyr, a transgender woman, has been banned from the floor of the Montana House of Representatives following action Wednesday by Republican leadership.
The House on Wednesday took up the vote to discipline Zephyr, which passed 68 to 32. A two-thirds vote was required to approve the motion.
The motion bars Zephyr from appearing on the House floor as well as in the House gallery for the remainder of the legislative session. Zephyr will be allowed to vote remotely.
Montana Democratic Party Executive Director Sheila Hogan released the following statement in response to Wednesday's decision:
“House Republicans have brought shame to Montana. Speaker Regier has a choice right now: he can either be a leader and get the House back in order to do the work they've been sent to Helena to do, or he can continue to silence 11,000 Montanans and the legislator they elected to represent them. In the meantime, Montana Democrats are ready to do their jobs of serving the state and protecting every Montanan’s constitutional rights.”
Zephyr has not been allowed to speak on the floor since last week. Republicans objected after she said lawmakers who voted for Senate Bill 99 — a ban on gender-affirming medical procedures for transgender youth — should be ashamed and would have “blood on your hands.”
Since then, Speaker of the House Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, has said he has concerns that Zephyr wouldn’t maintain decorum if he called on her, and he has refused to recognize her on the floor. He has pointed to rules that give the speaker the final say on questions of recognition.
Regier told MTN Zephyr would be allowed to speak again once she regained "trust" and apologized.
On Monday, demonstrators shouted and chanted from the gallery to protestthe House Speaker's decision not to recognize Zephyr to speak on the floor. Supporters of Zephyr say Regier was effectively “silencing” her and depriving the people she represents of a voice in the House.
The House Gallery was cleared due to the protest and seven people were arrested for refusing to leave.
Outside the Capitol building, Zephyr addressed supporters and members of the media.
“What you heard today is people standing for democracy, people standing to let their voices be heard in that floor,” Zephyr told Scripps News. “What you're watching here is you’re watching people who do not want to see democracy in action. They want to strip us of our rights. And it's not enough for them to get the harmful bills through. When someone stands up and calls out their bills for the harm they cause, for the deaths they cause, they want silence. And we will not be complicit in our eradication.”
One day after the protest the House Floor Session was canceled. During a press briefing, Regier pushed back on allegations of “silencing” Zephyr and expressed issues with media coverage of the situation.
“The entire story was not told,” Regier told reporters on Tuesday. “Headlines that have happened over the last week stating that the Montana House leadership or GOP has silenced anyone is false. Currently, all representatives are free to participate in House debate while following the House rules. The choice to not follow House rules is one that Rep. Zephyr has made. The only person silencing Rep. Zephyr is Rep. Zephyr.”
House Minority Leader Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said the Monday protest was not violent and disagreed with conservative voices describing it as a “riot.” She doesn’t believe the rules have been enforced consistently throughout the session, and she called the speaker’s actions extreme.
“I think Montanans know what's fair and what's not fair,” Abbott told MTN on Tuesday. “And what we've seen is a duly elected public official not being recognized on the floor to engage in free debate that disenfranchises her community, her constituents. The fact that this is the first trans woman who's been elected to the body and she's been silenced on issues directly impacting the trans community is also deeply disturbing to Montana Democrats.”