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Federal judge upholds Texas' open-meeting law

By The Associated Press

EL PASO, Texas — A federal judge in Pecos has upheld the state's open-meetings law, according to a 15-page ruling issued late on Nov. 7.

Plaintiffs Avinash Rangra, a member of the Alpine City Council, and Anna Monclova, a former council member, sued the state last year arguing that the 40-year-old law barring public officials from discussing public issues in private was an unconstitutional violation of their freedom of speech. Rangra and Monclova sued Texas, Attorney General Greg Abbott and Brewster County District Attorney Frank Brown.

U.S. District Judge Robert Junell, who heard the case earlier this year in a Pecos courtroom, ruled in favor of the state, saying that the plaintiffs "failed to show that the Texas Open Meetings Act is unconstitutionally vague" and "vague in all of its applications."

The judge also ruled that the plaintiffs would be liable for the state's court costs. It could not immediately be determined how much has been spent so far, but Jim Todd, assistant attorney general and the state's lead lawyer in the case, described the amount as minimal.

Dick DeGuerin, a Houston lawyer who represented Rangra and Monclova, said he was not entirely disappointed with Junell's ruling.

"Frankly I liked everything about it except its conclusion," DeGuerin said. "He found for us on everything but" the question of public officials being protected by the First Amendment when public business is concerned.

"The facts show the freedom of speech was (hindered) but public officials don't have a First Amendment privilege," DeGuerin said. "That was a very clean, clear cut opinion that we can appeal. I think he was wrong."

DeGuerin said the ruling would be appealed, though he did not know how quickly.

The ruling is most significant in what it doesn't change, Todd said.

"It preserves the status quo," he said. "The significance is what would have happened if (the judge) had found it was unconstitutional. It preserves the protections that the open- meetings act provides to the public and avoids the danger of losing those protections."

The case stems from an October 2004 e-mail from then-councilwoman Katie Elms-Lawrence to three other Alpine city leaders, including Rangra and Monclova, about the hiring of a city water engineer. Rangra replied to the original e-mail with his own suggestion. Elms-Lawrence and Rangra were indicted on a charge that they violated the open-meetings act, but that charge was dropped in 2005.

Rangra and Monclova filed suit to challenge the legality of the law later that year. In a hearing this summer, the plaintiffs testified that the law was vague and difficult to understand. Monclova said she was afraid to speak with voters after the indictments were handed down.

Court hears free-speech challenge to Texas open-meetings law
City council member charged under statute and ex-member who says those charges had a chilling effect ask federal judge to overturn nearly 40-year-old act. 07.29.06


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