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Judge dismisses media lawsuit over closed Republican meeting

July 9, 2021 GMT

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A Montana judge dismissed a lawsuit by The Associated Press and other media organizations that argued the chairman of a legislative committee illegally held a secret meeting of Republican lawmakers before the committee voted on bills involving abortion and transgender health care.

District Court Judge Mike Menahan ruled Thursday that he was unwilling to say that when most of the majority party’s committee members meet, it constitutes a quorum whose discussions must be open to the public under the right to know provision of Montana’s Constitution, the Montana State News Bureau reported.

Rep. Barry Usher of Billings held a closed meeting of nine of the 12 Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee in February. The full committee had 17 members, including five Democrats.

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Usher said he held three Republican members of the committee out of the meeting so it could be closed to the public, according to Mara Silvers with the Montana Free Press.

The meeting did not include more than half of the members of the committee and was not a quorum, the state Department of Justice argued in defending the case against Usher.

Mike Meloy, the Helena attorney for the media organizations, had argued that because Republicans hold a majority of the committee and have enough votes to make the decision for the committee, their caucus should be considered a subcommittee and the meeting should have been open.

“The Court is unwilling to redefine ‘quorum’ as a ‘majority of a majority,’ ” Menahan wrote. He said the gathering of lawmakers was closer to an ad hoc group than an organized deliberative body that would be open under Montana case law.

Usher said he supports the public’s right to observe what its government is doing.

“Montana’s constitution and state law spell out what is and isn’t a meeting that’s open to the public,” he said in a statement. “I’m glad to see the court agree with the very clear fact that a fraction of a quorum is not a quorum and the members of my committee talking together followed Montana law.”

Meloy argued that open meetings laws and the state Constitution should be interpreted broadly to protect the people’s right to know and observe their government. “It is particularly unfortunate that Usher’s actions were specifically designed to avoid public scrutiny,” Meloy said in a statement Friday.

In addition to The Associated Press, the lawsuit was filed on behalf of all five Montana newspapers owned by Lee Enterprises as well as the Montana State News Bureau; the Bozeman Daily Chronicle; the Montana Free Press; the Daily Inter Lake and other papers owned by Hagadone Media Montana; the Montana Broadcasters Association; and the Montana Newspaper Association.