High court finds violation of meeting law, but rules action taken was not invalid
MONTANA — A committee to nominate candidates for Commissioner of Political Practices met in violation of the Montana open meeting law, but the violation does not warrant the removal of the commissioner who ultimately was appointed and confirmed by the Senate, the state’s high court ruled in mid-February.
Under Montana law, a committee composed of the speaker of the House, the president of the Senate, and the minority floor leaders of the House and Senate, nominates candidates for the office of political practices commissioner to the governor for appointment.
In November 1992, facing an impending vacancy, the committee members talked on the telephone and, except for the house speaker, met to discuss candidates they would recommend to the governor. They did not announce the meeting and members of the public did not attend.
In December 1992, Gov. Stan Stephens appointed nominee Edward Argenbright. Common Cause, the Helena Independent Record and the Great Falls Tribune asked the First Judicial Court in Helena to void Argenbright’s appointment and to prohibit the governor from submitting his name to the Senate for approval. They said the committee violated the state’s open meetings law and the right- to-know provisions of the state constitution.
The lower court refused to act. Argenbright took the oath of office in January 1993 and was confirmed by the Senate in April. In March, Common Cause and the Helena Independent Record appealed to the state’s high court.
It held that the committee violated the open meetings law. However, it characterized the committee’s action in listing nominees as “advisory” to the governor. The court said the appointment was an action of the governor, confirmed by the Senate, and it refused to void it.
A dissenting judge agreed with Common Cause that the violation of the open meetings law tainted the appointment process and that the proceedings should begin anew.
(Common Cause v. Statutory Committee to Nominate Candidates for Commissioner of Public Practices; Counsel: James Reynolds, Helena)