Open up the doors

Our view: Lawmaking should be done in plain sight

Editorial from The Spokesman-Review

By a one-vote margin, Idaho Supreme Court justices decided this week that legislators can conduct committee meetings in secret.

The majority in the 3-2 decision penned by Justice Daniel Eismann against the Idaho Press Club focused on the fact that committee meetings weren’t addressed by the drafters of the Idaho Constitution when they insisted that lawmakers conduct public business openly. So, Justices Eismann, Linda Copple Trout and Gerald Schroeder ruled that the constitutional demand for openness applied only to full meetings of the House and Senate, not committees.

In handing down the disappointing decree, Eismann, Copple and Schroeder resembled the biblical Pharisees who were mesmerized by the letter of the law but failed to understand its intent. That the Idaho Constitution intended that the business of the Idaho Senate and the Idaho House “be transacted openly and not in secret session” is without dispute. That the Legislature has farmed out much of the business of the two houses to their committees is without dispute, too. That 21st-century Idahoans desire that public business be conducted in full view has been supported by several polls.

At this point, supermajority Republican lawmakers can proceed in one of two directions. They can view the split court decision as a license to close meetings to avoid controversy or other uncomfortable situations. Or they can act responsibly and close meetings only when dealing with extreme situations, such as litigation or state security, realizing that two justices dissented in the case and that their constituents disdain secret meetings. Those who show contempt for open government by abusing this carte blanche authority to close committee meetings should be defeated at the polls.

In his excellent dissent, Justice Jim Jones explained why it is important to keep all committee meetings open:

“… Bills are formulated in committees, competing proposals are considered, amendments are made, public policy is formulated, and the people are entitled to participate. They have a limited ability to do so when the Legislature debates and votes in full session. If legislative committee work is shielded from public view, what is there to keep either house from conducting even more of its legislative work in committee, including perhaps the final debate, leaving only the final vote to occur in open session? This is not a wise road upon which to embark.”

Justice Roger Burdick joined Jones in the dissent.

All is not lost for those who understand the importance of public access. Idaho lawmakers may have a slim majority of Supreme Court justices on their side, but they don’t have their constituents in their corner. They should be held accountable each time they meet behind closed doors. Last year, the Senate voted 26-9 to close committee meetings for any reason, with four North Idaho Republicans supporting the action: Joyce Broadsword of Sagle, Mike Jorgenson of Hayden Lake, and John Goedde and Dick Compton, both of Coeur d’Alene. Only Republican Sen. Shawn Keough of Sandpoint opposed the move.

Compton isn’t running again, but North Idahoans should remember this vote when the other three senators campaign this spring.

Editorial from The Spokesman-Review

Not an IDOG member yet?