HELENA - For the first time in its history, the state Supreme Court on Tuesday allowed members of the public to attend one of its formal meetings.
"We think it's the right thing to open this to the public and the press," Chief Justice Karla Gray said after Tuesday's regular court administrative meeting.
Gray said the handful of people in the room didn't alter the climate or content of discussions. Tuesday's 15-minute gathering consisted of four agenda items, including Gray encouraging justices to attend a reception for Girls State.
The meetings will show the public that the high court does more than deal with appeals, Gray said. Next Wednesday the court plans an open meeting to discuss significant revisions of the Montana appellate process, said Gray, a justice since 1991.
That's the kind of work the public can learn more about through the open meetings, she said.
The court needs to revise the appellate process because the rules have not been changed in decades, Gray said, and the justices plan to tackle everything about how appeals are processed. The revisions will be presented for public comment before they rules are included in the state law books.
Justices unanimously decided last Wednesday that their weekly administrative meetings should be open to the public. That decision does not affect the court's weekly closed-door conferences, when the members discuss and vote on cases. Only justices are allowed in the room for those gatherings, and the two doors are sealed with weather-stripping to prevent anyone from overhearing what is said in the room.
The debate over whether to open Supreme Court meetings, including deliberations on cases, has carried on for years, intensifying after a 1998 court ruling requiring legislative caucuses be open.
Lawmakers and some justices have argued that the court should comply with the open meetings law and citizens' constitutional right to know. They say individual privacy does not exempt the high court from open meetings laws when the court's decisions are based solely on public records.
Tuesday's meeting came the day before a scheduled hearing on a Senate bill that would clarify that meetings of the Supreme Court are subject to the open meeting law and provide an exception for judicial deliberations in cases.
The meetings that have been opened will generally deal with matters like revising rules governing attorneys and judges, court procedures, appointments to judicial boards and commissions, and court administrator reports.
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