Justices hear plea to order lawmakers to end secret meetings

From The Associated Press

By CHRISTOPHER SMITH
Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho (AP) – If the Idaho Supreme Court agrees with a district judge that the state constitution does not require public access to legislative committee meetings, citizens will be shut out of the fundamental business of democracy, a lawyer for the Idaho Press Club argued before the high court.

“The framers (of the constitution) took openness very seriously,” attorney Debora Kristensen said Monday in asking the justices to overturn a lower court ruling that found the Idaho Constitution requires only the floor sessions of the state Senate and House need be open to the public while committee meetings _ where lawmakers hear from witnesses and discuss pending legislation in detail _ can be closed at any time for any reason.

“The only place in the current legislative process where the public has the ability to instruct their legislators in their business is in committee,” said Kristensen.
But the attorney representing lawmakers maintained that, like a judge closing sensitive court proceedings, the Idaho Legislature has a right and need to close committee meetings when it chooses.

And such occasions have been rare, said Deputy Attorney General James Carlson.
“We don’t have abuse of this authority whatsoever,” said Carlson, noting that the appeal focused on just seven committee meetings that were closed, compared to thousands that were conducted openly. Lawmakers had good reason to go behind closed doors in such instances when they were discussing potential terrorist attacks on Idaho water supplies or settlement of a long-standing water rights dispute with the Nez Perce Tribe, he said.
“The Legislature understands and respects public involvement,” Carlson said. “I would submit those (closures) are a prudent use of executive committee to discuss sensitive subjects.”

The Press Club sued the Legislature in 2003 for closing meetings of official committees, arguing that the state constitution requires the “business of each house” must be conducted “openly, and not in secret session.” But in successive rulings, 4th District Judge Kathryn Sticklen of Boise 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.

Her rulings rely on another constitutional provision that says a quorum must be present before the Legislature can conduct business.

Kristensen pointed to the transcripts of the Idaho Constitutional Convention debates of 1889 and 1890 where delegates proclaimed their intent to have all business of the Legislature open to the public, adding “it doesn’t say when only a quorum is present.”
Republican legislative leaders have argued that closed-door committee meetings are sometimes critical to the legislative process so that lawmakers may openly discuss ideas or proposals, or consider issues of security, litigation and state employee discipline.

Minority Democrats have sided with the Idaho Press Club in the case and criticized GOP leadership for the secrecy policy. But they have balked at signing onto a Republican proposal for a “limited closure” rule that would keep meetings open except in extraordinary circumstances, with Democratic leaders saying they prefer to wait for the Supreme Court to rule in the appeal before deciding whether to support any limited closure rule.

Chief Justice Gerald Schroeder gave no indication whether the high court would rule before the current session of the Legislature _ which opened Monday _ adjourns in late March or early April. He ended Monday’s hearing by saying the justices would issue a decision “in due course.”
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On the Net: Idaho Supreme Court Oral Arguments Audio http://www.isc.idaho.gov/audio.htm

From The Associated Press

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