Raleigh, N.C. — House lawmakers amended their chamber rules Thursday morning in response to an incident earlier this month in which five Democratic lawmakers delivered a petition to Speaker Thom Tillis and took pictures in his office while neither the Republican nor his staff was present.
The measure, put forward by Rep. Larry Hall, D-Durham, surfaced Wednesday. It was approved by the House Rules Committee Wednesday and then approved by the full chamber Thursday morning with little debate.
"Once the office space is assigned to a member, that office space is private to the member," reads the rule. "No individual, other than a joint legislative employee of the General Assembly may enter the area containing the member's desk and work area without permission of that member or that member's designee if that area is unattended."
It is unusual for the House to modify its rules mid-session. It is also odd to see an amendment that repeats what is the commonly understood decorum in the Legislative Building. Senior House leaders did not announce the reason for the change, which is taking place in the end-of-session bustle.
While the resolution was in the Rules Committee, neither Hall nor Rules Chairman Tim Moore would confirm the reason for the bill.
However, legislative sources told WRAL News that the measure responded to a July 8 incident during which Reps. Alma Adams, D-Guilford, Carla Cunningham, D-Mecklenburg, Jean Farmer-Butterfield, D-Wilson, Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe, and Evelyn Terry, D-Forsyth, and a lobbyist with Planned Parenthood delivered a petition to Tillis' office. The petition objected to pending abortion legislation.
At the time, Tillis was not in his office, nor were any of his legislative staff members. The women went past the outer office, through an inner-office door and went into his inner office, which contains a private work area.
Once there, they deposited the petition on his desk and took pictures. Among those pictures was a detail shot of Tillis' desk that showed both the petitions and personal items sitting on the desk.
Those pictures disturbed Republicans, who viewed the incident as a breach of decorum.
Confronted as to whether it was the behavior of his fellow Democrats that prompted his resolution amending the rules, Hall was coy.
"That may have been the reason some folks voted for it," he said.
Asked if there was any other incident that prompted the resolution, Hall said he just wanted to record long-respected practice.
Pressed on the matter, he would only say, "You're right, I just didn't decide to amend the rules one night."
When asked about the specifics of the situation, Moore, R-Cleveland, acknowledged that it was that incident that inspired the change.
"That's correct," he said.
Asked if there was any other motive, Moore said, "That's the only thing I'm aware of."
Moore said it was particularly the post on Twitter that revealed Tillis' personal effects that was troubling. One picture may have revealed some personal financial information.
"There is a sense by folks on both sides of the political aisle that this was a breach of basic courtesy and decorum," Moore said. "This rules codifies in our House rules what has been the long-standing understanding of basic courtesy."
Adams said Thursday morning she did not know the reason for the rule change. Asked about the incursion into Tillis' office, she said the group of women did nothing wrong.
"We didn't break in anywhere," she said. "There was nobody there, so we delivered our petition."
Fisher acknowledged that the petition delivery sparked the new rule but said they did nothing wrong.
"I had no idea it would cause such consternation," she said, adding that she objected to how the incident was being portrayed.
"No doors were shut," she said, referencing online chatter that says she "broke into" the speaker's office.
"My goal was to make sure the voices of my constituents were acknowledged," she said. "If that's the only way they'll be acknowledged, that's sad."
Update: The House Democrats later issued this formal statement, attributed to Fisher:
"A group of legislators visited Speaker Tillis' office to drop off a petition signed by thousands of North Carolinians in opposition to a bill that would greatly reduce access to women's health care in our state. When we arrived at his office, he was not there, and both doors were open. We placed the petition on his desk. So far, this change to the House Rules is the only response we've received from Speaker Tillis. That is truly disappointing."