As reported previously in this space, one of the myriad screw-ups of the disconnected and tone deaf General Assembly leadership in recent months was its absurd decision to evict a group of silent demonstrators from the second floor of the Legislative Building back in February — a place in which the Speaker of the House was only too happy to receive a group of Tea Party protesters a few months before.
Now comes word that House and Senate Democrats are calling on the embattled House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger to clarify the rules regarding access to the public space. Here’s a letter from the House and Senate Minority Leaders (Rep. Joe Hackney and Sen. Martin Nesbitt) that was delivered yesterday:
May 14, 2012
The Honorable Thom Tillis
The Honorable Phil Berger
Co-Chairs, Legislative Services Commission
North Carolina General Assembly
Dear Speaker Tillis and Senator Berger,
We ask that you review what we believe is a recent incorrect interpretation of the rules for the State Legislative Building.
The rule in question, Rule II.3. states:
“3. Visiting on Second Floor of State Legislative Building. Individuals and groups of visitors who come to the State Legislative Building for the purpose of viewing the building and observing the sessions of either or both houses shall not visit the second floor of the building. Legislative staff guides shall conduct groups of visitors so as to comply with this rule. Visitors on the second floor shall, at the request of the legislative staff, state the nature of their business on that floor, and shall immediately leave that floor at the request of legislative staff.” (emphasis added.)
We believe that the first sentence as properly applied forbids access to the second floor only for persons in the building “for the purpose of viewing the building” or “observing the sessions.” Since a visitor observes the session properly only by going to the third floor gallery it seems quite proper to have them guided there and not have them enter the chamber from the second floor. Also, it seems quite legitimate to guide persons to other who are just “viewing the building” to be guided to other floors.
Yet, there are other important, legitimate, and constitutionally protected reasons for citizens to come to the second floor, since the Office of the Principal Clerk and 18 members, including the Speaker of the House and the Senate President Pro Tempore, have their offices there, and the right of citizens to petition for redress of grievances must include the right to visit members if done in a peaceable manner. Article I, Section 12 of our State Constitution states in part:
“Sec. 12. Right of assembly and petition.
The people have a right to assemble together to consult for their common good, to instruct their representatives, and to apply to the General Assembly for redress of grievances ….”
It is clearly established that the public has the right to visit their legislator, a right that is not prohibited by the two clauses in the rule. One cannot “instruct” their representative without having some level of access.
What is troubling and incorrect is the recent interpretation of the last sentence of the rule as a grounds to eject the public from the second floor: “Visitors on the second floor shall, at the request of the legislative staff, state the nature of their business on that floor, and shall immediately leave that floor at the request of legislative staff.” This sentence is merely a means of enforcement of the rule that prohibits two types of visitation to the second floor, and not some independent, vague, and unconstitutional reason for ejection that gives unbridled discretion to legislative staff. The public can be required under the rule to state their business, and if the reason given is not permitted by the rule, then the person may be required to leave the second floor.
We ask that legislative staff be given the proper guidance in interpreting the rule and that the public continue to have access to lawfully visit members whose offices are on the second floor. This would be consistent with both the law and previous practice and would contribute to openness and transparency in the legislative process.
Rep. Joe Hackney
House Minority Leader
Sen. Martin Nesbitt
Senate Minority Leader