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Open meetings law stands in 5th Cir.

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  1. Freedom of Information
The Texas Open Meetings Act remains good law after withstanding a constitutional challenge by former city council members who asserted…

The Texas Open Meetings Act remains good law after withstanding a constitutional challenge by former city council members who asserted the law violated their rights to exchange e-mail messages discussing city business in secret.

After four years of litigation, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Dallas (5th Cir.) dismissed the case today as moot. Although both Alpine, Texas, councilors’ terms had ended, Avinash Rangra remained an active plaintiff in the case. Sixteen judges held Rangra lacked the proper standing to sue.

The only judge who dissented in the vote was Judge James L. Dennis, who authored an earlier panel decision holding that open meetings laws must pass a higher constitutional threshold to remain good law and that elected officials should receive full First Amendment protection of speech pursuant to their official duties. That panel decision was vacated when the entire court agreed to review the case.

Dennis wrote that the full court’s dismissal of the case as moot is "incorrect, injudicious and result oriented." He said that although Rangra was no longer on city council, he "continues to live under the threat of prosecution and under the damage that was done to him" by the indictment for violating the law. The indictments against Rangra and fellow councilwoman Anna Monclova had been dropped years ago.

In his dissent, Dennis asserted that this case is "excepted from the mootness doctrine as presenting a ‘wrong capable of repetition yet evading review.’"  He stated the full court’s rationale for dismissing the case was that "it would overtax the judges of this court to prepare for oral argument" and that a "heavy work load never justifies giving short shrift to a case" such as this.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Junell in Midland, Texas, upheld the constitutionality of the open meetings law in late 2006, but that decision was overturned in April of this year by a panel on the Fifth Circuit that, in addition to Dennis, included Judges Jacques L. Weiner and Rhesa Hawkins Barksdale — who both agreed that the case was moot in today’s ruling.

The Reporters Committee had initially urged the full Fifth Circuit to rehear the case and last week filed a brief in support of the constitutionality of the open meetings law with the full court.