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Media sue Republican legislative committee chair over closed meeting

Suit says closure violates constitution
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Posted at 10:17 PM, Feb 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-12 00:17:30-05

HELENA — A coalition of Montana media organizations filed suit this week, challenging as unconstitutional the practice of Republican committee chairs holding closed meetings of GOP members before the panels vote on bills.

The suit asks the state District Court in Helena to rule that the action violates the media organizations’ right to know and be prohibited in the future.

The suit, filed Wednesday, stems from actions taken by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Barry Usher of Billings, at a Jan. 12 meeting of the committee in the Capitol.

Before the committee voted on several controversial anti-abortion bills, Usher recessed the meeting and told its Republican members to meet in a private, closed-door caucus to discuss the bills.

Mara Silvers, a reporter for the online Montana Free Press, went to the meeting room in the basement of the Capitol but was told she could not attend.

In a declaration filed with the lawsuit, Silvers said Usher told her that at least three Republican members purposely did not attend the meeting, so a quorum was not present and they therefore could close the meeting to the public.

She also said that Usher defended his actions by saying it was a common practice by other Republican chairs of legislative committees.

“We just always have; that’s the way I was taught,” he said, according to the suit. “Some of the things we have to talk about when we’re talking and discussing how we’re going to vote are personal and, you know, as you can see, our committee does get a little emotional.”

The Republican members met in the closed meeting for about a half-hour and returned to the regular committee, where Usher reconvened the meeting and the full committee, composed of Democrats and Republicans, voted on the bills.

The lawsuit names Usher as the defendant. It said his actions violate provisions of the state constitution, which says all sessions and committees of the Legislature must be open to the public.

In a meeting with reporters the following week, House Speaker Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, said that legislative legal staff has told him and other leaders that the closures are within the law.

When asked why the closed meetings are necessary, he said chairs field questions from inexperienced lawmakers about the process.

The coalition of media members that filed suit includes the Montana Broadcasters Association, Montana Newspaper Association, most of the state’s major daily newspapers, The Associated Press and the Montana Free Press.