Texas open meetings law a tool of censorship or safeguard against deals in smoke-filled rooms? Appeals court considers lawsuit brought by city officials


The Case of the Petrified Politicians, as we like to call it here at Texas Watchdog, got underway Thursday in Houston with their lawyer arguing the Texas Open Meetings Act is in conflict with government’s goal of robust conversation on political issues.

Oh, so that’s the goal of government. We thought it was to consolidate power and authority while squandering the hard-earned money of taxpayers. Robustly.

But we digress. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in a lawsuit signed onto by 15 city officials from across Texas contending the Open Meetings Act is unconstitutional because it stifles the free speech of elected officials, Courthouse News Service is reporting.

Please note we got through the entire previous paragraph without a single contemptuous guffaw.

The plaintiffs, who have in the course of this never-ending case described themselves as frightened of saying certain things in public, are gravely harmed because the Open Meetings Act forces them to censor themselves, their attorney, Craig Enoch, a former Texas Supreme Court judge, told the appeals court panel.

Reading the minds of all who value open government, the state’s attorney, James Ho, former state Texas Solicitor, called the lawsuit "a perverse way to interpret First Amendment rights."

Without criminal penalties, the act would have no gravity, he said.

"The Open Meetings Act benefits public officials as well as the people they represent," Ho said.
Without the Open Meetings Act elected officials would be free to "gather in a smoke-filled room," discuss whatever they wanted and make decisions without the public knowing what was being done, Judge Jerry Smith, one of the Appeals panelists, said.

The panel is hearing the appeal of a lengthy and detailed ruling in March of 2011 by Judge Robert Junell dismissing the lawsuit. Junell made essentially the same ruling in a lawsuit brought in 2006 by different city officials.

The 5th Circuit Court overturned Junell’s ruling in 2009, but the case was dismissed because the original plaintiffs were, by then, no longer in office.

Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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