Bar association agrees that meetings with lawyers can be open
ALABAMA–In a late-October letter, the Alabama Bar Association agreed with state news organizations that its code of ethics for lawyers does not justify closing all meetings of public bodies with their lawyers. Under state law, such meetings must be open except when their purpose is to discuss a pending lawsuit in which the board or commission is a named party.
Local public agencies such as county commissions and school boards excluded the public from their meetings, relying on a previous state bar association opinion. According to that opinion, an attorney who believed that an open meeting would be “detrimental to the best interest of his client” had an ethical duty to insist on a closed meeting.
The state Supreme Court, however, had previously held that meetings between a public body and its attorney can be closed only to discuss a lawsuit that has been filed in which the public body is a party. The Alabama open meetings law permits closed meetings when “character or good name” are under discussion.
In January 1997, media organizations in Alabama filed suit in circuit court in Montgomery claiming that their exclusion from meetings of public bodies with their attorneys was in violation of the state open meetings law.
In a letter to the state bar association, counsel for the Alabama Press Association and several state newspapers asked the bar association to clarify the relation of its opinions to the state open meetings law and the Supreme Court decision.
The state bar association agreed that its opinions do not supersede the open meetings law. The bar association also acknowledged that attorneys for public bodies who advise their clients of the Alabama Supreme Court ruling and who do not insist on closed meetings will not be in violation of the rules of ethics. The earlier bar association opinion was based on a version of Alabama’s code of conduct for lawyers that is no longer in effect, and applied only to the specific facts to which it was addressed, the association wrote.
Alabama Press Association attorney Dennis Bailey said that he “felt we accomplished what we needed to accomplish” in reaching the agreement. (Letter from J. Anthony McLain, Alabama State Bar, to Alabama Press Association; Media Counsel: Dennis Bailey)