Legislators will not fight ruling opening party caucuses
MONTANA–Montana’s legislative leaders decided in late October not to appeal a Helena state district court’s ruling that opened formerly secret party caucuses to the public, and the deadline to appeal the ruling expired soon after, the Associated Press reported.
In refusing to challenge the court’s decision, the four state caucuses remain bound by the District Judge Thomas Honzel’s determination that they are covered by the state’s open meetings laws and must be open to public observers.
Montana’s Democratic and Republican parties each maintain a caucus in both the state Senate and House of Representatives. These four caucuses were sued in 1995 by twenty-two news organizations including press and broadcast organizations, as well as the Associated Press and the state chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
The court held that the party caucuses are public bodies and are subject to state open meetings laws. Honzel noted that state legislators gathered at caucuses to discuss the public’s business. “When they do so,” he wrote, “the public has a right to observe their discussions and to be informed about what happens at those meetings.”
Honzel rejected the defendant’s arguments that party caucuses did not fit within the description of a public body because they are private, unofficial political meetings that do not exist for “any official government or public purpose.” Function trumped form, he wrote, explaining that although caucuses were not official legislative meetings, important public policy issues were often discussed there.
According to the Associated Press, legislators were divided on whether to appeal the decision, but a narrow majority of Democrats in the state Senate argued against appealing the decision.
“I think the public’s perception was that we were trying to hide something, and that’s certainly not the case, so we felt, ‘Let’s open it up and show people what we do,’ ” state Senate Minority Leader Mike Halligan told the Associated Press.
The court’s decision came on the heels of another district court decision which held that “statutorily required pre-session caucuses” were subject to the state’s open meetings laws. This earlier decision was also not appealed. (Associate Press v. The Montana Senate Republican Caucus: Media Counsel Jim Reynolds, Helena)