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Senators select lieutenant governor by secret ballot

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         TEXAS         Freedom of Information         Jan 4, 2001    

Senators select lieutenant governor by secret ballot

  • The state Supreme Court decided that the Texas constitution permits the Senate to proceed in secret contrary to open meeting laws.

Supported by a unanimous opinion of state’s highest court, the state Senate elected a new lieutenant governor by secret ballot on Dec. 28. News organizations fought the secret ballot in three courts during a two-day span.

After six secret votes in 55 minutes, Republican Sen. Bill Ratliff was elected by a 16-15 count to succeed Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, who replaced President-elect George W. Bush after he resigned as governor Dec. 21.

After the Senate informally agreed on Dec. 23 to a non-record paper vote, the American-Statesman, the Bryan-College Station Eagle, the Houston Chronicle, the San Antonio Express-News, the Waco Tribune-Herald and Texas Monthly joined in a letter to senators warning that a secret vote would violate open meetings laws.

“The secret ballot violates the fundamental tenet of an elected official’s accountability to the electorate,” they wrote.

When the Senate indicated that it intended to go forward with the secret vote, the media interests sued and received a favorable ruling on Dec. 27 from Travis County District Judge Lora Livingston.

The state constitution allows, but does not require, the Senate to vote in private for senate officers. However, Livingston ruled that the vote must be made publicly because the lieutenant governor has duties outside his scope as the presiding officer of the Senate. Within hours a three-judge panel at the Third Court of Appeals in Austin upheld the ruling.

On the same night, the Senate appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which released an opinion in less than 24 hours. The court vacated the district court judge’s order and allowed the secret vote. The court decided that the lieutenant governor’s duties outside the Senate do not negate the characterization of the office as a senate officer, electable by secret ballot under the state constitution.

(In Re The Texas Senate and The Honorable Rodney Ellis, Relators; Media Counsel: Jennifer Riggs, Hill Gilstrap Adams & Graham, Austin) CC

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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