NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · NEW HAMPSHIRE · Freedom of Information · June 3, 2005
Supreme Court says private legislative negotiations legal
June 3, 2005 · New Hampshire’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled Thursday that members of a legislative committee working to resolve differences between Senate and House versions of a school funding bill could meet privately without violating the state’s constitution.
State Rep. Daniel Hughes (R) had argued in his lawsuit that such nonpublic discussions violate both a constitutional provision establishing that “the public’s right of access to governmental proceedings . . . shall not be unreasonably restricted” and the state’s right-to-know law, which mandates public meetings. Though a lower court had ruled in Hughes’ favor, the Supreme Court found that the legislature’s right to engage in a free debate outweighed the public’s right to access and that it could not interfere with the legislature’s ability to set its own rules.
Looking at historical precedents and the method by which the bill was enacted, the court ruled that the “legislature could properly have determined that denying the public access to these negotiations was a reasonable restriction on the public’s right of access,” since most of the process was open and informal negotiations are “integral to the legislative process.”
In regard to the right-to- know law, the court did not find that it did not apply to the legislature, but rather that it was not a matter the court could rule on.
Hughes’ attorney, Bryan K. Gould, described the decision as “a step backward.”
“I think that whether the legislature complies with the constitutional right of access or the provisions of the right-to-know law is now completely within the legislature’s discretion. The court has said that it will not intervene,” Gould said.
Gould said he had “no doubt” the ruling could affect press access to the legislature, since now individual committees will be able to determine who can attend their meetings.
Senate President Thomas Eaton (R) told the The (Manchester) Union Leader that he “remain[s] committed to open government.”
“We always knew that our actions were in compliance with the constitution, the laws and rules of the senate and the State of New Hampshire,” Eaton said.
(Hughes v. Speaker of the N.H. House of Representatives; Requestor Counsel: Bryan K. Gould, Brown, Olson and Gould P.C., Concord, N.H.) — TS