We’ll have to see how big a deal this is.
In a major blow to the state’s government transparency laws, Texas’ highest criminal court has struck down a significant provision of the Texas Open Meetings Act, calling it “unconstitutionally vague.”
That law, which imposes basic requirements providing for public access to and information about governmental meetings, makes it a crime for public officials to “knowingly [conspire] to circumvent this chapter by meeting in numbers less than a quorum for the purpose of secret deliberations.” That provision aims to keep public officials from convening smaller meetings — without an official quorum present — to discuss public business outside the view of the taxpayers and the media.
Craig Doyal, the Montgomery County judge, was indicted under that statute for allegedly conducting “secret deliberations” — without a quorum of the commissioners court present — about a November 2015 county road bond. Doyal filed to have the charges dismissed, claiming the statute was unconstitutional. The case eventually made it to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which handed him a victory Wednesday. Two judges on the nine-member, all-Republican court dissented.
“We do not doubt the legislature’s power to prevent government officials from using clever tactics to circumvent the purpose and effect of the Texas Open Meetings Act,” Presiding Judge Sharon Keller wrote for the majority. “But the statute before us wholly lacks any specificity, and any narrowing construction we could impose would be just a guess, an imposition of our own judicial views. This we decline to do.”
Attorneys for Doyal argued months ago that the case should not be interpreted as a broad “take-down of the entire Texas Open Meetings Act.”
“This case is not about discussions of public matters in a quorum,” they wrote in a July 2018 brief. “This case is not about shutting out the public and the press from the political process.”
But open government advocates warned that the ruling, while specific to one slice of the open meetings act, importantly undermines its aims.
“I’m disappointed in the ruling,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “Some people will use it as a chance to try to get around the spirit of the law. But the vast majority of people want to follow the law and want the public to understand government and participate in government. The vast majority of public officials know they can’t go around in secret and deliberate.”
See here for a bit of background on the Doyal case. I don’t know about you, but I have always assumed that Sharon Keller imposes her own judicial views on every appeal she hears. Be that as it may, my first thought on reading this story was whether it might have an effect on the accusations against five HISD trustees who are alleged to have formed a “walking quorum” and met illegally to discuss replacing Superintendent Grenita Lathan. That charge, if justified, represents another reason for the TEA to take over HISD. Unless, I presume, it turns out that what they allegedly did wasn’t actually illegal. As of yesterday, that was unclear.
The ruling could impact the Texas Education Agency’s investigation into allegations of Open Meetings Act violations by some members of the Houston ISD Board of Trustees.
TEA officials are investigating whether five trustees illegally coordinated ahead of an October 2018 vote to oust Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, who took over the position indefinitely in March 2018. The five trustees each spoke with Lathan’s chosen replacement, Abelardo Saavedra, prior to the vote. Some trustees have said they communicated with one other board member about a potential motion to remove Lathan.
Trustees ultimately voted 5-4 to replace Lathan with Saavedra, but they reversed the decision several days later following intense public backlash and Saavedra’s decision to back out of the job. Saavedra told the Houston Chronicle he quickly discovered HISD’s issues stemmed from the school board, as opposed to Lathan’s administration.
TEA opened a special accreditation investigation in January after receiving “multiple complaints” about violations of the Open Meetings Act. TEA leaders said they are investigating whether trustees were “deliberating district business prior to a regularly scheduled board meeting,” regarding Lathan’s removal.
While the notice alludes to misconduct described in the same statute that was overturned Wednesday, TEA officials did not indicate they are investigating HISD based on that statute. Rather, the TEA notice lists the entire chapter of open meetings laws, leaving it unclear whether the investigation rested entirely on the now-invalidated statute.
TEA officials declined to comment Wednesday “due to the open investigation.”
I Am Not A Lawyer and am thus not qualified to assess that possibility, but as a blogger I’m fully capable of speculating about it. My point is that this ruling may well have some odd and unexpected consequences. Greg Abbott says he wants state agencies to “continue to follow the spirit of the law”, whatever that means. I expect that would eventually lead to more litigation, until or unless the Lege fixes the law to satisfy this ruling. Anything is possible, but I tend to bet the under in these matters. Welcome to the mostly post-Open Meetings Act world that we now live in. The Observer has more.