HELENA — Members of a legislative committee can hold a closed meeting to discuss votes or other subjects, as long as the number of lawmakers in the room is less than a quorum, a state judge has ruled.
District Judge Mike Menahan on Thursday dismissed a lawsuit brought this year by Montana news media groups, objecting to majority Republicans’ practice of recessing committee meetings to discuss committee business in private – and then returning to vote.
Republicans say the practice doesn’t violate state open-meetings laws, because the closed meetings never have a majority or quorum of the full committee. Democrats are not allowed to attend the meetings.
The media’s lawsuit said the meeting is a working quorum, because it constitutes a majority of the majority party, and therefore should be open.
Yet Menahan said he’s not willing to redefine a quorum as a “majority of the majority.”
“In this case, the eight or nine legislators who gathered in the Capitol basement did not constitute a quorum of the committee, hence no `meeting’ occurred,” he wrote.
The suit, filed by several daily newspapers, the on-line Montana Free Press, the Montana broadcasters and newspaper associations and The Associated Press, named state Rep. Barry Usher, R-Billings, as the defendant.
During a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 12, Usher, the chairman, had recessed the meeting before the panel voted on several controversial anti-abortion bills. All but a few of the committee’s Republicans then met in a closed meeting in another room, denying access to reporters.
They returned to the main meeting room about a half-hour later and voted on the bill.
These closed committee “caucuses” by Republicans – before significant votes are taken -- are a frequent practice in the Montana House.
Usher said Friday that he’s a “big supporter of the public’s right to observe what its government is doing,” but that he’s glad to see the court agree that part of a quorum is not a quorum of a committee, and that an official meeting didn’t occur.