HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Members of the Montana media are appealing a state judge's ruling in a lawsuit over whether Republican members of a legislative committee legally held a secret meeting before voting on bills involving abortion and transgender health care.
The media groups, including The Associated Press, argued the meeting of nine of 12 Republican lawmakers on the 19-member House Judiciary Committee should have been open to the public.
State Rep. Barry Usher of Billings, the committee chairman, said he intentionally limited the February meeting to nine Republicans so he could close it because the group did not include a majority of the members of the entire committee.
District Court Judge Mike Menahan agreed, ruling in July that he was unwilling to say that when most of the majority party’s committee members meet, it constitutes a quorum whose discussions must be open to the public.
The media organizations, in an appeal filed with the Montana Supreme Court on Monday, argued that Menahan only ruled based on the definition of “meeting” in state law and did not address whether the closed meeting violated Montana's Constitutional right-to-know provision.
Montana's Constitution guarantees the public the right to observe the deliberations of public bodies or agencies of state government and its subdivisions, unless the demand of individual privacy outweighs the merits of disclosure.
The media groups pointed to a 2004 Montana Supreme Court ruling that found the then-commissioner of higher education's closed meetings with upper-level employees of the university system were subject to the state's open meeting laws, even if the committee didn't have a set number of members or take votes.
Usher said he supports the public's right to observe what its government is doing.
“Montana’s Constitution and state law spell out what is and isn’t a meeting that’s open to the public,” he said in a statement. "I was glad to see the District Court agree with the very clear fact that a fraction of a quorum is not a quorum and the members of my committee talking together followed Montana law. I’m hopeful the Montana Supreme Court will uphold that common sense ruling.”
The Montana Attorney General's Office is defending Usher in the lawsuit.
In addition to The Associated Press, the lawsuit was filed 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.