All Montana legislative caucuses declared open

Friday, June 26, 1998

Nearly two dozen media organizations, including newspapers, television and radio stations, have won a lawsuit to force open all of Montana's legislative caucus meetings.

A Helena district judge recently rejected the arguments of lawmakers who said that the caucus discussions were private political gatherings not subject to the state's open-meetings law. A caucus is a meeting of the members of a political party to decide policy and to select candidates.

“Clearly, legislators gather at caucuses to discuss the public's business,” wrote District Judge Thomas Honzel. “When they do so, the public has a right to observe their discussions and to be informed about what happens at those meetings.”

Twenty-two news organizations sued in February 1995 to force open the caucuses of Republicans and Democrats in both the Montana House and Senate.

In April 1996, Honzel handed down a split ruling opening some caucuses and permitting others to remain closed.

Media groups then appealed to the Montana Supreme Court, which ruled 5-2 in December that Honzel must reconsider his original ruling.

Ian Marquand, Society of Professional Journalists' sunshine chair for Montana, said: “SPJ is pleased that the judge realized what I think should be obvious to any person with common sense: That these are public officials … meeting in a quorum of the legislature making significant decisions about the public's business in a public building on public time.

“This is not some sort of private retreat or a gathering of just private, like-minded individuals. This is significant public business. Once the judge was forced to deal with the issue on its merits, he came to the only conclusion he could come to, and that was the correct conclusion: That these should be open.”

Paul Shoemaker, news director for KPAX-TV
in Missoula, Mont., said that open-government advocates had hoped that Honzel would rule in favor of opening the caucuses, “considering the fact that the media is an arm of the public.”

“Any kind of access to things that should be open to the public—especially a meeting involving public officials—is good, because the public will see how the process works and they can get involved in monitoring,” said Shoemaker.

Stan Kaleczyc, an attorney for legislators advocating closed caucuses, was not available for comment. Kaleczyc had warned Honzel that ordering these meetings opened would ignore the state's constitutional history.

During the 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention, Kaleczyc said, delegates indicated that Republican and Democratic caucuses should remain private.

Jim Reynolds, an attorney representing the media in this case, is quoted in an Associated Press article as saying: “We are here as the people of the state of Montana to argue that we have a right to observe the deliberations of our elected officials.”

News organizations involved in opening Montana's caucuses include the Associated Press, the Bigfork Eagle; Bozeman Daily Chronicle; The Montana Standard of Butte; Great Falls Tribune; The Havre Daily News; Helena Independent-Record; The Daily Inter Lake; KECI-TV, Missoula; KFBB-TV, Great Falls; KXLF-TV, Butte; KRTV-TV, Great Falls; KTVQ-TV, Billings; KULR-TV, Billings; the Livingston Enterprise; the Miles City Star; Missoulian; Montana Newspaper Association; News Montana, Inc., as publishers of the Bighorn County News, Carbon County News and Stillwater County News; Ravalli Republic, and the Montana Chapter of the SPJ.

According to Marquand, who is also president of the Montana SPJ Chapter and vice-president of the Montana Freedom of Information Hotline (406.442.3261), the legislators have 60 days to file an appeal. They have indicated no intent to do so.