Supreme Court blocks a door to open meetings

Editorial from The Times-News

Look it up, read it, and then read it again. The Idaho Constitution demands that our elected leaders operate in broad daylight, with open doors, and in a public venue.

So reads Article 3, Section 12: “The business of each house, and of the committee of the whole shall be transacted openly and not in secret session.”

Apparently, the Idaho Supreme Court disagrees.

In a 3-2 decision released Monday that could have lasting impact on state government, the court ruled the Idaho Constitution doesn’t require legislators to open committee meetings to the public.

The decision came from a case involving the Idaho Press Club which objected to closed committee meetings in the 2003 and 2004 Legislatures. The Press Club and the Legislature agreed to seek the court’s opinion on those closed meetings.

Justice Daniel Eismann described how Section 12 splits hairs between “each house,” the “committee of the whole,” and the legislative committee. The latter is the smaller committee that oversees specific areas of legislation and state issues.

Anyone who observes the Legislature knows committees determine the shape and outcome of legislation in state government. As proof, look no further than the slate of legislation that centered on coal-fired plants. Committee debate determine if they lived or died. And remember, only in committees can the public testify on legislation.

But because the framers of Idaho’s Constitution did not include specific language limiting those committees, the court said the Constitution exempts them from the openness requirement. The majority opinion followed a rationale saying when a law lists some things for regulation, then it excludes all others.

“When the framers drafted a provision expressly limiting certain powers, there is no reason to believe that they intended the limitation to be broader than they drafted it,” Eismann wrote.

That explanation still doesn’t jive with the rest of the opinion. Eismann noted instances from the state constitutional convention where delegates specifically voted against giving the Legislature broad powers to close meetings.

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Jim Jones (joined by Justice Roger Burdick) repeatedly pointed out instances where the framers expressly objected to closed proceedings.

Jones added, “I find the Legislature’s argument that it may under the Constitution close committee meetings a bit disingenuous, in light of Idaho Code Section 67-2346: ‘All meetings of any standing, special, or select committee of either house of the legislature of the state of Idaho shall be open to the public at all times.'”

Long before the court made its decision, Idaho legislators agreed to drafting new rules that would curb their ability to close committee meetings. House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, R-Burley, discourages closed meetings with the exception of caucuses and litigious matters.

But Newcomb is on his way out, and tightened rules for these meetings can be undone at any time by future legislators — a fact enlightened further in Jones’ dissenting opinion.

“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.”

If that sounds frightening for democracy, it is. Unfortunately, this court opinion gives future legislators the chance to make it happen.

Editorial from The Times-News

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