You probably didn't take off Friday, Jan. 10 off to celebrate. The earth didn't move here in Montana. But, the legal ground shifted — slightly but for the better.
The day before, the Montana Supreme Court voted unanimously to reverse a 2006 Supreme Court ruling which had said that a resident must prove his or her interest in a case in order to sue a state agency.
That's sounds pretty technical and jargony. And most people don't entertain notions of suing the state.
But what you might have missed in what appeared to be just another court opinion among many is that Montana's highest court gave residents the right to take their state to court without first having to prove you should even be able to sue it.
That may sound a bit awkward. But between 2006 and the court ruling, Montana residents had to prove that they were directly related or impacted by an agency in order to even get the case to court. In other words, just being a resident of Montana or a taxpayer wasn't enough to be able to sue the government if you believe it had done wrong.
But the high court's ruling did something very powerful: It reaffirmed some of the best parts of what is a tremendous state constitution. This latest ruling said that just being a resident of the state gives a citizen enough standing to take an agency to court.
That may seem kind of self evident. After all, people sue government agencies all the time.
However, previously if a Montana state agency wasn't following its own rules or had held a meeting in secret, if the average resident objected, he or she would have had to demonstrate harm being done directly to him or her. It gets hard to prove that an average Joe Citizen was directly harmed because a meeting was held in private. And so Montanans had to simply trust that the state government was acting properly.
That's the point of open government, though. You should not have to take some official or agency's word. Instead, you should be able to see your government in action, as well as have the ability to hold government accountable, even if that means suing it.
One of the questions The Gazette is most frequently asked is: Why do you file all those lawsuits?
The answer isn't because we believe lawyers need all the financial help they can get, or that we enjoy people in black robes. Instead, the truth is that many newspapers still sue government entities in the process of seeking data that is in the public's interest. It's not that we — as journalists — should ever claim a special privilege. Instead, we are just the folks who most often have cause to obtain, use and publish data in the form of news stories. Sometimes that puts us at odds with public officials. Most often, the fights are not personal, just difference of legal opinion.
However, this ruling means that public records and state agencies in Montana became a little more open. Often, news organizations could sue state agencies and have a case, simply because reporting on a public agency was considered to be a reason to need access to records and government.
The important thing, though, is that the courts shouldn't be able to create different classes of citizens. In other words, journalists shouldn't be given more or different access to records just because we're journalists and we need information. Instead, we, as journalists, should be given access to state agencies and government because we are citizens, just like anyone else, and as citizens, we have the right to know. The difference is simply that we use that access more frequently than most.
In its decision, the Montana Supreme Court has given power back to the citizens as it reaffirmed not only Montanans right to know, but also right to participate in the entire process of government, including redress in the courts.
So, it's a good thing when I can say, "Go sue yourself."