A long-running challenge to the Texas Open Meetings Act, which requires elected officials to make most decisions in a public setting, ended Monday morning when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a lower-court ruling upholding the law.
Fifteen city officials from across Texas, including Pflugerville City Council Member Victor Gonzales, had filed suit, arguing that the law unconstitutionally limits what they can say and inappropriately targets one class of speaker — elected politicians — with a criminal penalty that hampers their ability to do their jobs.
The officials lost all the way down the line.
In March 2011, U.S. District Judge Robert Junell issued an emphatic ruling in support of the Open Meetings Act, saying the law is intended to promote good government and citizen involvement, not thwart free speech.
“This court finds that a Texas citizen has — at the minimum — a significant right, if not a fundamental right, to open government,” Junell wrote. “Speech concerning public affairs is more than self-expression; it is the essence of self-government.”
The officials, represented for no charge by noted Houston lawyer Dick DeGuerin and other attorneys, fared no better at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in September that laws prohibiting elected officials from discussing public business in private are intended to promote good government, discourage corruption and foster trust in official decisions.
“Transparency is furthered by allowing the public to have access to government decision making,” a three-judge panel of the court ruled.
The city officials appealed again, but the U.S. Supreme Court, without comment, declined to take their case in orders released Monday morning.
Attorney General Greg Abbott, who defended the law in multiple courts, praised the outcome.
“Open, transparent government is fundamental to our democratic system of government,” Abbott said Monday. “Today’s decision ensures that the Texas Open Meetings Act will continue holding elected officials accountable to conduct the taxpayers’ business in the light of day.”
Since 1967, the Open Meetings Act has required quorums of most government bodies to discuss most public business in a properly called meeting, generally with at least 72 hours’ notice, that is open to the public. Violators can receive up to six months in jail and a $500 fine.
The high court’s decision ended an almost nine-year legal battle that began when members of the Alpine City Council, prosecuted for discussing city business in private emails, filed a federal lawsuit arguing that the law violated their First Amendment free speech rights.