Our View: Ruling on open meetings doesn’t support public’s view

Editorial from The Idaho Statesman

On Monday, legislative committees took up issues as varied and vital as school construction, pesticide safety, high school curriculum and elected officials’ salaries.

And on Monday, a divided Idaho Supreme Court missed an opportunity to stand up for your right to attend these meetings.

The court ruled 3-2 that the Idaho Constitution does not require legislators to keep committee meetings open. That decision essentially defends the status quo — House and Senate operating rules that allow a committee to close any meeting, for any reason, on a two-thirds vote.

It’s too bad Chief Justice Gerald Schroeder, Justice Dan Eismann and Justice Linda Copple Trout weren’t swayed by their colleagues, Justices Jim Jones and Roger Burdick. Jones’ dissenting opinion presented a powerful case for the importance of open committees:

• Committees — which debate and refine bills and accept public testimony — clearly conduct legislative business. As the state’s Constitution says, “The business of each house, and of the committee of the whole shall be transacted openly and not in secret session.”

• In a state Constitution where all political power is inherent in the people, the people maintain the right to instruct their elected officials. “There is no indication in the Constitution that the people intended their right to instruct to stop at the doors of a closed committee meeting,” Jones wrote.

• Committee meetings allow Idahoans to watch the formation of policy, not just the final vote on bills. If committees are allowed to do some of their work outside public view, Jones asked, what’s to stop a committee from debating bills in secret and emerging only to cast their final votes? “This is not a wise road on which to embark.”

Secrecy can become troubling in a hurry. That’s why the Idaho Press Club, a statewide media organization, sued the Legislature in 2004, after lawmakers closed seven meetings in 2003 and 2004. Press Club members wanted to stop closed meetings and force the Legislature to conduct public business in public view.

The court majority took no side on that issue, ruling only on whether the language of the Constitution requires open meetings. Eismann’s opinion focused on Idaho’s constitutional convention of 1889, trying to discern what the founding fathers meant when they advocated conducting legislative business in the open.

Interpreting 117-year-old deliberations is one thing. Interpreting the current will of the people, in this case, is easy.

Seventy-five percent of Idahoans said the Legislature should conduct its business in the open, according to a Boise State University survey released in January 2005. Later in 2005, the nonpartisan group The Common Interest found even more overwhelming opposition to secrecy; the group polled a sampling of its more than 700 members, and 95 percent opposed the House and Senate rules allowing closed meetings.

Since the Supreme Court didn’t rule on whether meetings should be open, that decision belongs to lawmakers. They have ample reason to replace current rules that invite secrecy with rules that preserve openness.

Editorial from The Idaho Statesman

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