An advocate for government transparency argued Friday that the Missouri House was defying voters’ wishes by withholding information from the public when responding to open records requests.
The question of whether the Missouri House has the authority to withhold information, including voter addresses and phone numbers, was the focus of a hearing on Friday before Cole County Circuit Court Judge Jon Beetem. .
The lawsuit stems from a rule the Missouri House passed following voters’ passage of a constitutional amendment, known as “Clean Missouri,” in November 2018 that subjected lawmakers to the law. State sunshine. Previously, some lawmakers had considered themselves exempt from open case laws.
The House responded in January 2019 by passing Standing Order 127, which states that lawmakers may “keep voter records and caucus records of the majority or minority House party that contain caucus strategy, confidential “.
This rule was cited by the House as justification for redacting email addresses, mailing addresses and phone numbers from records requested later that year by Mark Pedroli, founder of the Sunshine and Government Accountability Project.
Pedroli had filed registration requests with lawmakers on behalf of his clients seeking emails to find out if they had been sent by third parties posing as voters of lawmakers.
“It was a conscious, deliberate, provocative and political action,” Pedroli said Friday of the House rule’s passage, which he said was designed to challenge provisions of the Sunshine Act enacted under Clean Missouri.
Marc Ellinger, an attorney representing the Missouri House of Representatives, argued that the rule passed by the Missouri House in 2019 was narrow in scope and justified.
“Anything the General Assembly does under Section 127 is generally available to the public upon request,” Ellinger said. “It’s a very restricted subset that’s not available on demand, and it’s to protect that information, to protect those constituents.”
Ellinger pointed to the authority granted under the Missouri Constitution which states that the House and Senate “may determine the rules of their own proceedings, except as provided herein.”
Pedroli noted that the Missouri Constitution provided an exception — language adopted under Clean Missouri that considered legislative documents submitted to the Sunshine Law.
However, Ellinger argued that the House’s power to pass its own rules did not conflict with the language adopted by voters in 2018, arguing that “that leaves it as an open question at best.”
“Rules are sacrosanct unless there is an express exception and saying an express exception is easy to do,” Elinger said. “That was not done in this case.”
Beetem questioned, if the constitutional amendment passed by the voters had, “said ‘all records – and we really do mean all records – including the names and addresses of people who correspond with their lawmakers,’ would that create a direct conflict?”
Ellinger said it would be much closer to creating a direct conflict, but ultimately argued that a clear conflict would have existed if the language adopted by voters expressly stated that “legislative rules cannot conflict.”
Ellinger urged courts to be cautious about the powers of the General Assembly. However, if Beetem determines that the house rule conflicts, Ellinger argued that it should fall within the exceptions provided in the Sunshine Act, noting that Missouri Supreme Court rules are excluded from the Records Act. open to the state.
Pedroli pushed back and argued that House Rule 127 conflicts with the constitutional amendment passed by the voters, and is therefore unconstitutional and should be struck down – eliminating any rule that might fall under the Sunshine Law exceptions.
“If article 127 of the rules of procedure is unconstitutional, what remains?” Pedroli asked.
Additionally, Pedroli noted that courts have determined that voter information, such as contact information, has been interpreted as open to the public.
He cited an opinion that Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office sent to Governor Mike Parson in 2019, which stated, “Missouri courts have repeatedly ordered the release of personal contact information in response to requests from Sunshine Law.”
The attorney general’s letter ultimately said the governor’s office should not rely on the First Amendment to redact personal contact information. It’s an area lawmakers have long tried to exempt from the Open Archives Act and which Parson has identified as a priority for the current 2022 legislative session.
Other issues raised Friday in the case include whether Pedroli had aggrieved party status and whether Jean Evans, a former state legislator, should be removed as a defendant due to the fact that she was no longer a representative of the State at the time. Pedroli had submitted his file request to him.
While both sides urged Beetem to enter summary judgment in their favor on the question of constitutional authority, Pedroli requested that partial summary judgment be entered on the count regarding violations of the Sunshine Act. If granted, Pedroli said he aims to take depositions to determine whether passing the House rule was a conscious and willful violation of the constitutional amendment passed by voters.
Beetem did nothing on Friday afternoon.
The Missouri Independent is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.
Lawsuit: House rule violates open records law
Judge to determine whether the Chamber has the power to withhold information from the public