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State Supreme Court opens administrative meetings to the public

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    News Media Update         Montana         Secret Courts         March 21, 2005    

State Supreme Court opens administrative meetings to the public

  • A decision to open a high court’s weekly meetings may be the first of its kind in the country.

March 21, 2005 — In an unusual move, the Montana Supreme Court announced Wednesday that it would open its weekly administrative meetings to the public.

The court’s deliberations on cases, however, will continue to take place behind closed doors.

Members of the media have long called for the court to open its conferences to the public, Chief Justice Karla Gray said Friday in a telephone interview. Montana’s 1972 constitution contains a “right-to-know” provision stating, “No person shall be deprived of the right to . . . observe the deliberations of all public bodies or agencies of state government and its subdivisions, except in cases in which the demand of individual privacy clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure.”

“We are a very strong right-to-know state, and while the court has on previous occasions issued an opinion holding that the constitution does not require us to open any part of our conferences, we have subsequently reached this comfort zone with opening the administrative portions,” Gray said. “I think we all think it’s the right thing to do.”

The court’s announcement, which was reported by the Associated Press but not widely publicized in Montana, coincidentally occurred during Sunshine Week, a nationwide media initiative to promote more openness in government.

“We didn’t plan it that way, but it turned out that way and I thought it was lovely,” Gray said.

Gray said she did not know of any other state courts that hold its conferences in public, but “I think likely there aren’t many.” She said she notified her fellow chief justices of Montana’s decisions and had heard back from only one who supported the idea.

Disclosing judge’s discussions and preliminary decisions could subject them to “intense political pressure,” the AP reported. Still, some believe that the deliberations should be public.

“It’s a great step in the right direction,” attorney and former justice Terry Trieweiler said of the court’s announcement, according to AP. “But I don’t think it goes far enough.”

The agenda for the seven-member court’s first public meeting, to be held March 22, includes a discussion regarding an appointment to the Board of Continuing Judicial Education. Ironically, the court decided in a 1999 unpublished opinion that the state constitution’s right-to-know provision did not require it to discuss board appointments in open session.

Revising rules is a less than “glitzy” topic on next week’s agenda that may or may not be of interest to the public, according to Gray. Asked how many people she expected to attend the meeting, she said, “Zero to who knows.” But she pointed out that exciting or not, administrative matters are part of the business of the court.

“I feel very good that we took this step,” Gray said. “If people aren’t interested, that’s entirely fine, but we’ve done what we thought was the right thing in opening this part of our (formerly) closed conferences.”


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