High Court allows groups to join appeal of closed meetings

From the Associated Press

By CHRISTOPHER SMITH, Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho (AP) – Environmental, civil rights and voter education groups are joining the legal fight of an Idaho media club asking the state Supreme Court to stop lawmakers from closing legislative meetings to the public.

The Idaho Supreme Court has granted a request by the Idaho Conservation League, the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho Foundation and the League of Women Voters of Idaho to submit arguments in support of the Idaho Press Club’s appeal of a district judge’s ruling that found the Idaho Legislature can close committee meetings whenever lawmakers choose to go into secret session.

“All three of these organizations represent a group of Idaho citizens who are concerned about their ability to actively participate in the legislative process if the business of the Legislature is done in closed committee meetings,” said Sara Shepard, a Boise attorney who is representing the three organizations as “friends of the court” in the case.

The state’s high court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the appeal Monday, the opening day of the 2006 Idaho Legislature. The Supreme Court order allowing the three groups to submit arguments in support of the Idaho Press Club position was granted Friday.

The Press Club sued the Legislature in 2003 for closing meetings of official committees, arguing that the state Constitution requires that all business of the lawmaking body must be conducted “openly, and not in secret session.” But in successive rulings, 4th District Judge Kathryn Sticklen determined the framers of the Idaho Constitution intended only the general sessions of the House and Senate always to be open, not the committee hearings.

The groups challenge that conclusion in briefs filed with the Supreme Court, noting that records of the debate during the Idaho Constitutional Convention of 1889 and 1890 show that delegates intended that all deliberations undertaken by state legislators _ not just the debates on the floor _ were to be conducted in public.

“I want the electric light of publicity turned upon everything the Legislature has to do in our halls,” Alan Parker, the delegate who proposed the open meetings language at the constitutional convention, was recorded as saying in the record of the official proceedings.

The groups note in court documents that open government was such a priority with the framers that they hired professional stenographers from Denver to record verbatim the entire debates of the Idaho Constitutional Convention.

Between 1990 and 2003, legislative analysts say only one of thousands of committee hearings was closed to the public. But in 2003 six committee meetings were held secretly, prompting the media group’s lawsuit.

As lawmakers negotiated a contentious water rights settlement with the Nez Perce Tribe in the 2004 session, other meetings were also held behind closed doors. No meetings were closed last year, but the Senate voted in February for rule changes allowing committees to close hearings for any reason as long as two-thirds of their members voted in support.

Republican legislative leaders have argued that closed-door committee meetings are sometimes necessary for lawmakers to openly discuss ideas or proposals, or to consider issues of security, litigation and state employee discipline.

Minority Democrats have chastised the GOP leadership for the secrecy policy, and have balked at signing onto a Republican proposal for a “limited closure” rule that would keep meetings open except in extraordinary circumstances.

Democratic leaders have said they prefer to wait for the Supreme Court to rule in the Idaho Press Club appeal before deciding whether to support any limited closure rule.

Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming are the only Western states where legislative committees can cite any reason to close hearings to the public.

Montana, Oregon and Washington require legislative committee hearings always to be open, while Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah allow committees to close hearings only for specified extraordinary reasons.

From the Associated Press

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