The Mississippi Free Press asked a court on Monday to hold that Mississippi House Republican Caucus meetings must be open to the public under the Open Meetings Act. Last year, the full Mississippi Ethics Commission rejected the Mississippi Free Press’ argument and declared that the Legislature is not a “public body” under the law after its director, Tom Hood, recommended that the panel affirm this publication’s request.
The House Republican Caucus, whose members constitute a majority of the lower chamber, meet behind closed doors, and outgoing House Speaker Philip Gunn had long used the secret meetings to set the agenda for the House and deliberate on legislative priorities. The meetings have often left not only the press and the public but other lawmakers in the dark about major legislative maneuvers until the day they happen.
“The public deserves access to rooms where their elected officials make decisions,” Mississippi Free Press Editor and CEO Donna Ladd said today. “We will continue to fight for transparency and to ensure the Legislature is not held to a lower standard than every city council and board of supervisors across the state.”
Rob McDuff, an attorney with the Mississippi Center For Justice, filed the Mississippi Free Press’ brief in the Chancery Court of Hinds County this morning, asking the court to “hold that all meetings of the House Republican Caucus that include a quorum of the membership of the Mississippi House of Representatives and that are not purely social must comply with the Open Meetings Act be open to the press and the public.”
Last year, MFP reporter Nick Judin attempted to attend a House Republican Caucus meeting, but leadership removed him. He and the Mississippi Free Press then filed a complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission, citing the State’s 1975 Open Meetings Act, which defines a “public body” this way:
“[A]ny executive or administrative board, commission, authority, council, department, agency, bureau or any other policymaking entity, or committee thereof, of the State of Mississippi, or any political subdivision or municipal corporation of the state, whether the entity be created by statute or executive order, which is supported wholly or in part by public funds or expends public funds, and any standing, interim or special committee of the Mississippi Legislature.”
On Dec. 1, 2022, Mississippi Ethics Commission Director Tom Hood recommended that the commission rule in favor of the Mississippi Free Press, writing that “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 Ethics Commission rejected Hood’s recommendation in a 5-3 vote, with the panel’s majority writing that the Open Meetings Act “does not expressly include or exclude the House, the Senate, or the Legislature as a whole.” The Mississippi Free Press filing today reaffirms the publication’s original position, however.
“Because the House is plainly a policymaking entity of the State of Mississippi, it is a ‘public body’ covered by the Open Meetings Act. Accordingly, the House Republican Caucus meetings must be open if they contain a majority of the House members and therefore constitute a quorum,” the brief says.
During the 2023 legislative session, Sen. Jason Barrett, R-Brookhaven, filed a bill that would have amended Mississippi Code § 25-41-3 to clarify that the list of “meetings” covered under the Open Meetings Act includes “a quorum of members of a public body that may deliberate or act upon any matter” under their purview. The bill died without a vote.