HELENA - The Montana Supreme Court on Wednesday opened a door in the wall of secrecy that has surrounded the high court since statehood, by ordering that the justices' weekly administrative meetings be open to the public.
The surprise announcement marks the first time the seven justices have ever adopted a policy opening any of their gatherings, and comes a week before a hearing on a Senate-passed bill mandating such court meetings be subject to the same open meeting requirements as those of other state agencies.
The decision also coincides with Sunshine Week, nationally designated by media organizations and other groups pressing for government access at a time when they believe information is being withheld more often by officials citing security concerns in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
The court's action does not affect its weekly closed-door conferences at which 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 within the room.
Chief Justice Karla Gray, a longtime opponent of opening court deliberations, said Wednesday's decision to allow the public into the administrative meetings will not necessarily lead to open deliberations.
"Someday we may decide to voluntarily do that, but the constitution doesn't require that," she said.
The court unanimously opted to open the regular Tuesday administrative meetings as a means of educating the public, Gray said.
"It's a good thing," she said. "These are matters that can appropriately be worked on and discussed by the court in the public eye. It will help educate the public about some of our work that they may not be familiar with."
Many Montanans think of the court only in terms of ruling on appeals, said Gray, a justice since 1991. "We're just trying to create an opportunity for a public meeting and more awareness of our work.
"We're committed to as much openness in government as possible," she said.
The meetings that will be opened usually deal with such matters as revising rules governing attorneys and judges, court procedures, appointments to judicial boards and commissions, and court administrator reports.
The debate over whether all Supreme Court meetings - including deliberations on cases - should be open to the public has raged for years, but has intensified since a 1998 court ruling required previously private legislative caucuses to be open.
Lawmakers and even some justices have periodically argued that the court conferences should comply with the open meetings law and citizens' constitutional right to know. They say the only exemption is to protect an individual's right to privacy, but privacy is not an issue when the court's decisions are based solely on public records.
However, others have contended that disclosure of the discussions and preliminary decisions would expose justices to intense political pressure that has no place in the judicial system. They have claimed that court members, operating in the public eye, would be reluctant to change their minds for fear that Montanans would assume political pressure was to blame.
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