In a 3-2 decision, the Idaho Supreme Court has ruled against the Idaho Press Club in its lawsuit challenging closed meetings of official legislative committees as a violation of the Idaho Constitution. Justice Daniel Eismann, writing for the majority, agreed with attorneys for the Legislature that the Constitution’s prohibition of secret sessions of the Legislature doesn’t apply to committees – even though those committee do the bulk of the work of the Legislature and are the only place in the legislative process where the public participates and offers testimony.
Justice Eismann noted that the case presented “various policy arguments as to why legislative committee meetings should always be open. We cannot use policy arguments to give a constitutional provision a meaning that is not consistent with its wording. Such policy reasons could certainly be considered by the legislature when deciding whether to permit its committee meetings to be closed. They may also support a constitutional amendment broadening the scope of Article III, Section 12. We cannot use them, however, to vary the plain meaning of that constitutional provision.”
In the dissent, Justice Jim Jones wrote, “The fact that the Legislature has chosen to establish committees and delegate a good deal of the legislative work to those committees should not deprive the people of the ability to have access to, and input in, meetings of committees where legislative business is being conducted. Bills are formulated in the committees, committee competing proposals are considered, amendments are made, public policy is formulated, and the people are entitled to participate. They have a limited ability to do so when the Legislature debates and votes in full session. 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.”
Justice Roger Burdick concurred with Jones in the dissent. Chief Justice Gerald Schroeder and Justice Linda Copple Trout concurred with Eismann in the majority opinion.