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Legislative committee meetings can be closed

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   IDAHO   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   March 22, 2006

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   IDAHO   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   March 22, 2006

Legislative committee meetings can be closed

  • Dealing a defeat to the Idaho Press Club, the state Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature is not required to open all committee meetings.

March 22, 2006  ·   The Idaho Constitution does not require the state Legislature to open committee meetings to the public, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday in a closely split decision.

Rejecting a case for openness brought by the Idaho Press Club, the court voted 3-2 to uphold two earlier opinions by District Judge Kathryn Sticklen of Boise, who ruled that the constitution’s framers intended only the general sessions of the state House and Senate always to be open.

The Press Club sued in May 2004 after the House and Senate closed seven committee meetings to the public in their 2003 and 2004 sessions, according to court documents. Topics covered in those meetings included water rights negotiations, field burning and tax policy, the Press Club reported.

Writing for the court, Justice Daniel Eismann, joined by Chief Justice Gerald F. Shroeder and Justice Linda Trout, focused on the language of Article III, section 12 of the state constitution, which says: “The business of each house, and of the committee of the whole shall be transacted openly and not in secret session.” At issue was whether that provision, as it was meant when written in 1889, requires all meetings of legislative committees to be public.

Eismann noted that the court did not address whether legislative committee meetings should be open, but only whether or not the constitution requires them to be open. It does not, Eismann wrote, because the framers did not include committee meetings in the provision on open meetings.

Had delegates to the state’s constitutional convention “intended to prohibit the legislature from closing all such committee meetings, one of the delegates would certainly have mentioned that issue when they were debating the particular proceedings that the legislature should be prevented from closing to the public,” Eismann wrote.

Justice Jim Jones said in a dissenting opinion that nothing in the constitution allows the legislature to conduct business in committees. Jones rejected the majority’s interpretation of “business” as only things that happen on the floor of the Legislature when a quorum is present. He wrote that while the framers might not have specifically addressed committees when writing the provision on openness, their intent clearly was to prevent the Legislature from conducting the people’s business in secret.

“I am unable to read the Idaho Constitution in such a fashion as to allow the State Legislature, which was established by the people, to have the ability to exclude the people from any stage of the lawmaking process,” Jones wrote. “I simply cannot accept the notion that the people would require the Legislature to conduct the people’s business in public yet intended to permit the Legislature to create smaller forms of itself and conduct that business behind closed doors.”

Justice Roger S. Burdick joined Jones in his dissent.

The dissent’s focus on the meaning of the constitution’s words seems to make more sense than the majority’s technical legal arguments, said Press Club President Betsy Z. Russell, Boise correspondent for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash.

The Press Club, represented by attorney Debora Kristensen and joined in friend-of-the-court briefs by the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, the League of Women Voters and the Idaho Conservation League, argued that the phrase “business of each house” should be read to include committee meetings. The groups also raised public interest arguments for openness, which the court acknowledged but said it could not use to interpret the constitution.

The Legislature could, however, consider the public interest when it decides whether to close committee meetings, Eismann wrote.

Russell said the Press Club sees the ruling as a chance for the Legislature to amend its current rules to provide for more openness.

Current rules say any meeting can be closed at any time for any reason, Russell said. Despite that, she said the recent closed meetings were the first in many years of a tradition of openness.

“Since our lawsuit was filed, there has not been a single closed meeting of a legislative committee,” Russell said. “If this case prompts the Legislature to look at how it operates and to be more open to the citizens, then it was well worth it.”

Press Club members now will focus their attention on a legislative effort to craft new rules that strictly limit circumstances for closed committee meetings, she said.

“We think that’s the right thing to do at this point,” she said. Russell said she expects the new rules to be completed in either this year’s or next year’s legislative session.

(Idaho Press Club v. Idaho Legislature; Debora K. Kristensen, Givens Pursley, Boise, Idaho)AB

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