Party caucuses before legislative sessions must be open

Feature | December 4, 1995

Party caucuses before legislative sessions must be open

12/04/95

MONTANA--A group of 22 Montana newspapers and publishers won a partial victory in mid-November when a Helena judge ruled that Republican and Democratic party caucuses preceding legislative sessions must be open to the public.

District Court Judge Thomas C. Honzel ruled that meetings of political parties held before legislative sessions must be open, but he added that meetings held by the parties during legislative sessions may be closed.

The news organizations had asserted that all party caucuses must be open to the public to comply with Montana's Constitution and Open Meetings Law. Since decisions reached in these caucuses, especially those of the majority party, often lead to legislation, the meetings are part of the legislative process and should be made public, the news organizations asserted.

House Speaker John Mercer, a Republican who was among four individual legislators named in the lawsuit, argued that closed sessions encourage party affiliates to discuss legislative issues freely.

The legislators argued also that the district court lacked jurisdiction over party caucuses because they are not "persons" subject to suit under Montana law, nor are they "public bodies" under Montana's Constitution or Open Meetings Law.

Citing a Montana statute that requires pre-session meetings of party representatives, Judge Honzel ruled that pre-session caucuses must be open to the press and public. Finding no such statutory provision for caucus meetings during the legislative session, the judge held that such meetings may be closed.

The news organizations had not decided by late November whether to appeal the ruling, according to their attorney. (Associated Press v. Montana Senate Republican Caucus; Media Counsel: Jim Reynolds, Helena)