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Court will re-hear Texas open meetings law case

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  1. Freedom of Information
A federal appellate court rightly decided this week to re-hear a case on the constitutionality of the Texas Open Meetings…

A federal appellate court rightly decided this week to re-hear a case on the constitutionality of the Texas Open Meetings Act.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans (5th Cir.) took the unusual and laudable step of granting a petition for en banc review, meaning the full court will now consider a case that a three-judge panel of the court previously decided.

The Texas Attorney General’s office asked the court to reconsider its previous ruling in Rangra v. Brown, which said the Open Meetings Act infringed on elected officials’ free speech rights by making it a crime for a quorum of them to discuss government business outside of a public meeting.

The plaintiffs in the case — two city councilors from Alpine, Texas — were indicted on allegations that they violated the open meetings law for exchanging e-mail messages about city business. The indictments were dropped, but the council members challenged the law in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas as a violation of the First Amendment. 

The Reporters Committee filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Texas saying open meetings laws regulate government action, not speech, and that the result of the Fifth Circuit’s opinion was to cast doubt on the constitutionality of open meetings laws across the country.

More than a dozen attorneys general in other states also filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Texas, saying the court should reconsider its decision, which garnered much attention.

The decision to rehear the case marks a step in the right direction for the 5th Circuit. It seems to signal the court’s willingness to reconsider a ruling that is out of step with other courts and that could potentially lead elected officials to disregard open meetings laws altogether.