BOISE – The Idaho Press Club is taking to the Idaho Supreme Court the fight to keep the state Legislature’s formal legislative committee meetings open to the public.
Fourth District Court Judge Kathryn Sticklen on Thursday upheld her initial ruling that legislative committees, such as the House and Senate resources, tax and local government committees, don’t do the business of the Legislature so the constitution does not require them to keep their meetings open to the public.
Sticklen denied the press club’s motion to reconsider the case, but attorney Deb Kristensen said the group of radio, newspaper and television reporters will appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.
In October, Sticklen granted the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, ruling that only the full House and Senate do official business.
Both sides had predicted that the issue would ultimately be settled by the high court.
“Committees are the only place in the Legislature where the public has the ability to impact legislation,” Kristensen said. “The Idaho Constitution is the only real protection Idaho citizens have to prevent abuse by their government.”
The judge told the court Thursday that there’s nothing stopping the Legislature from abolishing committees and, to her, it’s clear the Idaho Constitution doesn’t consider committees to be the business of the Legislature.
Deputy Attorney General James Carlson said that if the press club wants guaranteed access to legislative committees then it should start a movement to amend the state constitution.
“It’s not the court’s job to rewrite this,” Carlson said. “It’s the people’s.”
After the hearing, Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane said that the public has many opportunities to interact with lawmakers, including writing letters and e-mails, calling them or catching them in the Capitol halls. As added access, the Legislature has committee meetings where the public often can testify on proposed measures. Yet, he said, that’s not a guaranteed privilege.
“As a rule, the Legislature fosters interaction with the public,” Kane said, adding that lawmakers also should have the ability to close committee meetings to consider sensitive issues such as the vulnerability of the state’s water supply.
The press club filed the lawsuit in May as a response to seven instances in the previous 18 months when House and Senate committees barred the media and general public from official meetings. Two of those involved briefings on water-rights negotiations that had been subjected to a gag order by the District Court.
Today, the Senate Republican leadership is proposing rules changes in the Judiciary Committee that would allow closed committee meetings for any reason. Current Senate rules allow closures only for certain topics, including personnel matters, litigation cases and land negotiations.
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