The eight-member Mississippi Ethics Commission voted 5-3 Friday that the state Legislature is not bound by the state’s open meetings law.
The Mississippi Constitution states that “the doors of each house, when in session, or in the committee of the whole, shall be kept open, except in cases which may require secrecy.” The Constitution also says a majority of the House or Senate is a quorum.
The ruling came in a complaint filed by the Mississippi Free Press saying that the House Republican caucus members, which currently consist of 75 of the 122 members, are violating the open meetings law when they meet behind closed doors to discuss policy.
Mississippi Today detailed the activities of the closed door meetings in a story earlier this year during the 2022 session. The story cited reports of various House members and detailed how the caucus meetings were usually the first place rank-and-file House Republicans were informed of details of major policies developed by Speaker Philip Gunn and a handful of other House leaders. And in those meetings, discussions often were held on whether members supported those proposals of the leadership. Caucus members who had questions were urged to speak privately with the relevant committee chairmen — Gunn appointees who are the speaker’s closest allies.
The Senate opted not to have a similar caucus because members expressed concern that it would violate the open meetings law.
Tom Hood, executive director of the Ethics Commission, recommended to the panel that the Legislature did fall under the open meetings law. The commission rejected the findings of its executive director and is scheduled to meet in the coming weeks to finalize its opinion on the issue.
The Hood opinion in part read, “It is essential to the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government and to the maintenance of a democratic society that public business undertaken by a quorum of the House of Representatives be performed in an open and public manner. The formation and determination of public policy by a quorum of the House is public business and must be conducted at open meetings.”
Hood had recommended that the commission schedule a hearing to determine whether the House Republican Caucus did in fact meet in private with more than a majority of the House in present to discuss legislative issues. If so, he argued that would be in violation of the opening meetings law. The commission rejected his reasoning.
Gunn and members of the House leadership argued that a party caucus was not a governmental body that would be covered by the open meetings law.
The Hood opinion did not broach the issue of the constitutional provision that seems to mandate the Legislature meet in public. The Ethics Commission is charged in state law with ruling on issues regarding the state’s public records and public meetings laws, but not constitutional matters.
The Ethics Commission is comprised of appointees of the governor, Supreme Court chief justice, speaker and lieutenant governor.