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Federal judge faults House proxy voting to block new pregnant worker protections

BY: NICK NIEDZWIADEK | 02/27/2024 07:18 PM EST

A federal judge on Tuesday blew a hole in a recent expansion of federal protections for pregnant workers by ruling that the 2022 omnibus spending package that included it was improperly passed because it relied on members of the House voting by proxy.

In a 120-page decision, Judge Wesley Hendrix of the Northern District of Texas determined that the House “lacked the constitutionally required quorum but sought to evade the Constitution’s limits by counting absent members as present in order to conduct business.”

The ruling could call into question large swaths of legislation passed during the multiyear span in which proxy voting was widely used by the House and inspire additional legal challenges.

However, in the specific case, Hendrix’s ruling was far more limited: In it, he barred federal officials, including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Justice Department, from enforcing the provisions of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act against the state of Texas and its various agencies.

That bipartisan legislation, which was included as a last-minute amendment to the end-of-year spending deal, requires employers to provide “reasonable accommodations,” such as additional rest periods or temporary job modifications, to pregnant workers while they’re on the job.

“Texas has demonstrated that the PWFA as a whole was enacted unconstitutionally and … defendants’ exercise of these powers against Texas would violate the Constitution,” wrote Hendrix, an appointee of former President Donald Trump.

The EEOC referred comment to the Justice Department, which did not immediately return a request to comment on the ruling.

The case is a remnant of a hot-button issue for Republicans over absentee voting procedures put in place during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. Critics of the policy, which members of both parties took advantage of, contend that it violated the Constitution and was abused by lawmakers to avoid having to be present in the Capitol to cast necessary votes.

Then-Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and fellow House Republicans lodged a challenge that was ultimately rebuffed by the Supreme Court in early 2022 that seemingly put a damper on the debate — particularly after the GOP ended proxy voting after winning control of the House in that year’s midterm elections.

But Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton rekindled the battle in February 2023 by suing the Biden administration over the $1.7 trillion funding package passed just before the end of the prior year. The initial lawsuit sought to invalidate the entire omnibus deal but was subsequently trimmed, while retaining its central argument that federal lawmakers need to be physically present in Congress to pass legislation.

“Congress acted egregiously by passing the largest spending bill in U.S. history with fewer than half the members of the House bothering to do their jobs, show up, and vote in person,” Paxton said in a statement. “Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi abused proxy voting under the pretext of COVID-19 to pass this law, then Biden signed it, knowing they violated the Constitution. This was a stunning violation of the rule of law.”

Still, Hendrix’s ruling was not a total victory for Texas, as the judge dismissed the state’s challenge to a $20 million pilot program under the Department of Homeland Security that provides funding to connect migrants to government services while their immigration cases are pending. The judge ruled that Paxton’s office lacked standing to contest that part of the 2022 omnibus.

As part of his decision, Hendrix stayed his order for seven days to allow time for the parties to appeal.

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