Would a Virtual General Assembly Meeting Be Legal?

Could the General Assembly meet in the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis? U.S. Navy Sports image

For weeks, Maryland General Assembly committees have been meeting via Zoom, as have so many people, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The sessions give legislators an opportunity to get briefings and conduct out-of-session oversight without convening in person, an act that would put them, their staffs and the public at risk.

What’s remarkable about the online meetings is how unremarkable they are.

With businesses, schools, government agencies, families, doctors and their patients, and seemingly everyone else (even “Saturday Night Live”) using online meeting platforms, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that lawmakers have never done this before.

For one legislator, the migration to the web poses some obvious questions: Could the full Senate and House of Delegates meet virtually?

And could they meet outdoors, perhaps at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis?

One month ago, the legislature canceled tentative plans to meet in special session this week because of the lingering COVID-19 crisis. But lawmakers eventually will need to gather — either in January for the regular 2021 session or in special session, should the need arise. And there is no way to know, beforehand, what the public health situation will be when they meet.

On Thursday, Del. Ronald L. Watson (D-Prince George’s) asked Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) to determine whether virtual and outdoor meetings would be constitutional.

Based on his reading of the state’s constitution, Watson believes such gatherings would pass legal muster.

While the Maryland Constitution designates “[t]hat Annapolis be the place of meeting of the Legislature,” it also says “the Legislature ought not to be convened, or held at any other place but from evident necessity.”

Article 2, Section 16 says, in part, “whenever from the presence of an enemy, or from any other cause, the Seat of Government shall become an unsafe place for the meeting of the Legislature, [the governor] may direct their sessions to be held at some other convenient place.”

“Holding a live meeting of the legislature in Annapolis would create a large gathering of individuals and would violate the Governor’s Order on social distancing and avoidance of large gatherings,” Watson said in his letter to Frosh.

“Convening virtually would allow the legislature to conduct its business, and achieve the goal of social distancing by preventing a large gathering of the legislature and its staff,” he added.

The Wyoming legislature met via Zoom earlier this month and the Delaware legislature is set to meet virtually next week.

Another option — one that might make voting easier — would be to meet outdoors.

“In the interest of conducting the business of the legislature, I request a formal opinion to determine whether or not the Maryland General Assembly can convene and hold a virtual meeting or hold an outdoor meeting at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium,” Watson wrote.

According to Berkeley C. Teate of the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Virginia House of Delegates met in a tent on the lawn outside the Capitol for its veto session in April, while the Virginia Senate met in Richmond’s science museum.

Other legislatures have also turned to large indoor venues.

The Arkansas House met in a basketball arena and the Illinois House convened in the Springfield convention center, both for special sessions, Teate said.

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