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Federal judge rules against pregnant workers in win for Paxton

By Matthew Choi, The Texas Tribune

Federal judge rules against pregnant workers in win for Paxton” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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WASHINGTON — A federal court in Lubbock ruled Tuesday that proxy voting in Congress doesn’t count toward a quorum, weakening a law to protect pregnant workers that was passed with proxy votes.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the Biden administration last year over a massive government funding package that passed largely by proxy votes because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The funding package, passed in December 2022, included the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which protects accommodations for pregnant employees in the workplace and allows workers to sue employers for failing to do so. It prohibited employers from denying employment opportunities or forcing pregnant workers to go on leave if alternative accommodations were possible.

Paxton argued the Constitution requires a physical majority of members in the U.S. House to pass legislation. Since a majority of members of the House voted on the funding package by proxy, Paxton said it was unenforceable.

Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi allowed members to vote by proxy due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Members of both parties took advantage of proxy voting for a range of reasons, from meeting with lobbyists to promoting books. The funding package came to a House vote in late December when many members had already left Washington for the holiday recess.

Judge James Wesley Hendrix of the Northern District of Texas agreed with Paxton’s understanding of a quorum.

“Based on the Quorum Clause’s text, original public meaning, and historical practice, the Court concludes that the Quorum Clause bars the creation of a quorum by including non-present members participating by proxy,” Hendrix wrote in his opinion.

Paxton took issue with the PWFA in particular in his original lawsuit, asserting it put undue burden on the state government to accommodate its pregnant employees. He wrote Texas already has provisions to accommodate pregnancy and that the law unconstitutionally opened the state to lawsuits over the federal law.

Hendrix ruled the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act unenforceable against the state government and its agencies. It does not nullify the entire $1.7 trillion spending package. Doing so would jeopardize programs across the federal government, including defense spending, health care and veterans programs.

Hendrix gave the federal government a week to appeal.

It was not the first legal challenge against proxy voting. Former House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy sued to end proxy voting in 2020, but a federal court in Washington ruled it did not have the authority to rule on the House’s procedures. The Supreme Court declined to take the case.

U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, led an amicus brief last year supporting Paxton’s lawsuit. Roy was one of the fiercest opponents of the spending package, which he said amounted to government waste without appropriate oversight.

“The Constitution was made for times such as this, when government may claim emergency powers or special privileges to respond to extraordinary circumstances,” Roy wrote in the amicus brief. “But affording the government such powers undermines our structure of government, and ultimately imperils American citizens even more than infectious disease does.”

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