Idaho legislative committee meetings can be closed

By The Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho — The Idaho Supreme Court has ruled that the state constitution does not limit the power of the Legislature to close committee meetings, rejecting an argument by the Idaho Press Club and other groups that framers intended all lawmaking proceedings to be conducted publicly.

The Press Club sued the Legislature in 2003 for closing some meetings of official committees, arguing that the state constitution states the "business of each house" must be conducted "openly, and not in secret session."

But in a 3-2 decision yesterday, the high court upheld 4th District Judge Kathryn Sticklen of Boise, who had determined the framers of the constitution intended only the general sessions of the House and Senate always to be open, not the committee hearings.

"None of the delegates (to the constitutional convention) argued that legislative committee meetings should be either open or closed," wrote Justice Daniel Eismann for the majority. "That is simply not a matter they were concerned about."

Writing for the minority, Justice Jim Jones countered that there was nothing in the constitution that authorized the Legislature to conduct any business in committees.

"Just because the Legislature has chosen to conduct a good deal of its work in its various committees does not mean that the legislative business conducted in those committees can be shielded from public view," Jones wrote.

Idaho House Speaker Rep. Bruce Newcomb, R-Burley, said he was pleased with the court's finding upholding the Legislature's power to close committee meetings whenever it deems necessary. But he said Republican leaders in the House and Senate were at work on a new rule that would prevent closures of committee meetings except in rare instances.

"We have a joint rule that we might discuss, that would address abuses of executive privilege," Newcomb told the Associated Press.

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said the court's decision  cleared the way for consideration of a limited-closure rule.

"I don't believe any rule the Legislature could have passed would have averted the important question that has now been answered by the Supreme Court," he said.

Idaho Press Club President Betsy Z. Russell, a reporter for the Spokane, Wash., Spokesman-Review newspaper's Boise bureau, said the press club was disappointed in the decision, but hoped it would serve as a catalyst for amending the Legislature's current rule to provide for more openness.

"Since the lawsuit was filed, there has not been a single closed meeting of a legislative committee," she said. "If this case prompts the Legislature to look at how it operates, and be more open to the citizens, then it was well worth it."

In Eismann's majority opinion, endorsed by Chief Justice Gerald F. Shroeder and Justice Linda Trout, the court noted that at when Idaho gained statehood on July 3, 1890, the public had no guaranteed right to attend meetings of any government body and none of the other 42 states constitutionally prohibited closing legislative committee meetings. The court also noted that the U.S. Congress did not open its committee meetings to the public until 1946.

Justice Roger S. Burdick joined Jones in opposing the majority decision. They argued that although the framers may not have specifically addressed the role of committees in the open process of lawmaking, the intent of Idaho's constitutional convention delegates was to prohibit conducting the people's business in secret.

"I am unable to read the Idaho Constitution in such a fashion as to allow the State Legislature, which was established by the people, to have the ability to exclude the people from any stage of the lawmaking process," wrote Jones. "I simply cannot accept the notion that the people would require the Legislature to conduct the people's business in public yet intended to permit the Legislature to create smaller forms of itself and conduct that business behind closed doors."