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The censure of Montana House Representative Zooey Zephyr exemplifies the declining American political decorum standards.


A county court in Montana judge rejected The attempt by Democratic state Rep. Zooey Zephyr to return to the House floor following the steps of Republican lawmakers who blocked her from entering or speaking in the House chamber in late April 2023.

Zephyr sued the Republican leaders of the Montana House of Representatives for excluding her from the floor proceedings. The Montana judge, a former Democratic state legislator himselfruled on May 2, 2023 that reinstatement of Zephyr was not within the jurisdiction of the court and would “interfere with legislative authority”. The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana represented Zephyr And four of her constituents in the lawsuit.

The ACLU said the removal and silencing of Zephyr, the state’s first openly transgender legislator, violates democratic principles freedom of expression and political participation.

It could also run afoul of the spirit of legislative rules created more than 200 years ago by none other than Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of this country. Those rules were written to protect minority views, which the majority in the Montana House did not vote for.

I am a political scientist who focuses on American politics, minority politics and reducing prejudice. I have written and researched about the impact of bias in American politics and how government policies affect minorities.

Clearly, rules and customs in American politics and state legislatures have evolved since Jefferson first established a set of procedural rules. But previous standards of decorum now seem to be waning in state politics.

Zephyr’s punishment, as well as the recent one expulsion of two black lawmakers in Tennessee for speaking without being recognized and leading gun control protests point to a trend in which parliamentary rules are being used to silence minority legislators and drive them out of legislatures.

Supporters of transgender legislator Zooey Zephyr hold signs in Livingston, Mont., on April 29, 2023.
William Campbell/Getty Images

What happened

Republicans leading the Montana House say Zephyr broke rules of decency after her raised a microphone above her head while protesters chanted “Let her speak” in the Chamber of the House on April 24, 2023.

House Speaker Matt Regier and other Republicans voted in favor on April 26, 2023 stop Zephyr from talking on the House floor after the protest and after she refused to apologize for saying so eight days earlier that legislators restricting access to gender-affirming care would see “blood on their hands.”.

With this vote, the Montana House of Representatives blocked Zephyr from the House floor for the rest of the session, which normally ends in May. This means that while Zephyr can vote on measures remotely, she can not talk on the living floor. It too blocks her from other working areas in the Legislative Building.

Republicans have said they condemned Zephyr because she incited protesters in the Chamber of the House.

“The choice not to follow house rules is one that Rep. Zephyr made. The only person Rep. Zephyr to silence, Rep. Zephyr. The Montana House will not be bullied,’ Regier wrote on Twitter.

Zephyr’s disapproval comes amidst one wave of efforts across the country to limit access to gender-affirming health care. legislators have introduced 400 anti-trans bills nationwide since January 2023.

Understand the rules of decorum

The U.S. House of Representatives and state legislatures have specific rules on decorum, or how legislators should conduct themselves during and outside legislative sessions. This contain rules allow the speaker of the House or other political leaders to choose who gets to speak and for how long.

Legislators, both at the state level and in Congress, can choose to reprimand or remove members who break the rules. In the American House, members have been convicted to share violent videos about harming colleagues and for sexual misconductamong other things.

have legislative leaders ample discretion on whether or not to allow elected officials to speak. Legislators have an equally broad discretion over whether or not to disapprove or remove members who violate these rules.

In the case of Zephyr, Montana House Speaker Regier, according to the rules of the legislator, did have the authority to forbid Zephyr to speak. This decision is taken from the documented rules of the Montana House.

Still, the disapproval was from Zephyr unprecedented in modern Montana politicsand have similar violations of decorum remained unpunished over there.

Prevent minority legislators from fully participating in legislative debates violates democratic principles of free debate and equal representation.

According to Jefferson, using parliamentary rules to silence and censor lawmakers also violates the spirit of those rules.

In a black-and-white drawing, four men in old-fashioned clothing sit around a table.  One of them is standing next to the table.
Thomas Jefferson, on the far right of the photo, planned to enact a set of legal rules to bring order to a tumultuous time in the country’s founding years.
ullstein bild/Getty Images

These rules have a long history

The U.S. House and many state legislatures, including Montana’s, largely following rules written by Jefferson and published in 1801.

So are the current Senate rules heavily affected according to the Jefferson manual.

Jefferson wrote these lines during a tumultuous time in the country’s history. He feared that the divisions of politics in his time would tear the young country apart.

His manual including behavioral guidelines such as, “No one should disturb another person speaking by hissing, coughing, spitting, speaking, or whispering to another.”

At the turn of the 19th century, the House and Senate were not governed by a set of separate rules, and there was only limited guidance prescribed by the Constitution. Jefferson worried that the lack of specific rules of procedure gave legislative leaders too much leeway.

He suspected that codifying the rules would help protect the minority. He saw the rules as “the only weapons against which the minority can defend itself” the abuses of the majority.

A large group of men in suits sit around tables with microphones.
Montana lawmakers will meet on April 26, 2023 on a motion to disapprove Zooey Zephyr.
Tommy Martino/AP

The disapproval is a failure of political civility

Yet these parliamentary procedures failed to protect the minority opinion when it came to Montana’s first transgender legislature.

I believe this is due to a lack of civility and a lack of empathy in American politics.

While Zephyr may have broken the decency rules of the Montana legislature in what she said or did, political scientists have acknowledged that democracy requires patience or restraint in exercise of political power, which the House leaders failed to do despite Zephyr’s violation. When politicians exercise their authority without restraint, democracies break down.

Informal standards in American politics – such as courtesy to all colleagues – tend to promote political cooperation and contribute to the functioning of a healthy democracy.

Democracy also performs better when opposing parties have compassion for each other.

Not being able to practice mutual tolerance and forbearance against members of the opposing party only increases division and degrades the country’s democracy. During the day such a polarizing timeI think it is more important than ever to exercise political restraint and compassion towards those who are different from us.

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