HELENA — A group of Montana media organizations have filed a lawsuit accusing the chair of a legislative committee of holding a secret meeting before members voted on bills involving abortion and transgender health care.
News organizations including The Associated Press argue Republican Rep. Barry Usher’s decision to hold a closed gathering of nine Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 12 violated the state’s open meeting laws.
Usher did not respond to emails Thursday and Friday seeking comment. A phone call to his office went unanswered, and no voicemail was set up. Dylan Klapmeier, spokesman for the House Republicans, declined to comment on pending litigation.
The committee met early that morning, beginning at 7 a.m., and held roll call before breaking for 30 minutes of caucusing.
Mara Silvers with the Montana Free Press said several Republican members went to a room in the basement of the Capitol building, but Silvers was not allowed to listen to the discussion.
Usher “informed me that he made three of the members stay out of the meeting so there would be no quorum of the committee in attendance,” Silvers said in a deposition. Usher said he did it intentionally so the meeting could be held in private, Silvers said.
The House Judiciary Committee has 19 members — 12 Republicans and seven Democrats. The Democratic caucus was open to the press.
The House Majority interprets open meeting laws to say if there’s not a quorum of the committee present it doesn’t have to be an open meeting because business can’t be conducted, Klapmeier told the Montana State News Bureau in January.
Mike Meloy, the Helena attorney for the media organizations, argued that because Republicans hold a majority of the committee and have enough votes to make the decision for the committee, their caucus should be considered a subcommittee and the meeting should have been open.
However, that specific issue has not been decided by the Montana Supreme Court.
A 1997 Montana Supreme Court decision in another case filed by Montana media members led to a ruling that political caucuses held during the legislative session are open meetings.
“Clearly, legislators gather at caucuses to discuss the public’s business,” District Judge Thomas Honzel wrote in 1998. “When they do so, the public has the right to observe their deliberations and to be informed about what happens at those meetings. The court concludes, therefore, that the party caucuses are public bodies” and subject to the Right to Know provisions of the Montana Constitution.
The lawsuit against Usher was filed in District Court in Helena on Wednesday on behalf of all five Montana newspapers owned by Lee Enterprises as well as the Montana State News Bureau; the Bozeman Daily Chronicle; the Montana Free Press; the Daily Inter Lake and other papers owned by Hagadone Media Montana; the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Montana Newspaper Association.
The media groups are seeking a ruling that the meeting of a majority of the Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee violated their constitutional right to know. The coalition is also asking Judge Mike Menahan to set aside any decisions made during the illegally closed meeting and order Usher to refrain from conducting any more closed meetings.
“The fact that these caucuses are open to the press and the public is an established part of Montana law. We think it should be that way; the peoples’ business is being done,” said David McCumber, regional editor for Lee Newspapers. “And to use an artifice or a stratagem of leaving members out of the caucus in an attempt to evade public records law, we feel, is illegal and not good government and we don’t think we should sit still for it. So we are looking to the court to give us clarity on this issue.”
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