Nine months after the Mississippi Ethics Commission dismissed an Open Meetings Act complaint filed by the Mississippi Free Press, the media outlet has filed an appeal in Hinds County Chancery Court.
In December 2022, the Mississippi Ethics Commission ruled that a meeting of the House Republican Caucus in the Legislature – even if it contains a quorum – does not violate the Open Meetings Act as it is not a “public body,” nor is the House of Representatives, as defined in the statute. That determination by the Ethics Commission was made by a 5-3 vote.
Now, nine months after the Ethics Commission’s dismissal, the Mississippi Free Press is appealing the ruling in Hinds County Chancery Court.
The question in the matter was first raised on March 4, 2022, when State Senator Sollie Norwood (D) questioned Speaker Philip Gunn’s use of House Republican Caucus meetings presumably to whip votes on important legislation. The policy in question at the time was the elimination of the state’s personal income tax.
Ten days later, Mississippi Free Press reporter Nick Judin attempted to remain in a House Republican Caucus meeting, which holds a supermajority of lawmakers in that chamber when all members are present, but was asked to leave. Judin and his outlet claimed the meeting violated the Open Meetings Act.
READ MORE: Mississippi Ethics Commission: Legislature, House Republican Caucus fall outside of definition of “public body”
The Mississippi Free Press then filed a complaint with the Ethics Commission on March 24, 2022, stating that Speaker Philip Gunn and the House Republican Caucus were barring access to the official meetings of a public body engaged in the shaping of public policy in violation of the Open Meetings Act.
Following the complaint, responses were entered by the House Republican Caucus and Speaker Gunn. Ultimately, the Ethics Commission dismissed the complaint.
The media outlet’s attorney, Rob McDuff with the Mississippi Center for Justice, filed the appeal on Monday, September 11, 2023, asking the court to find that all meetings of the House Republican Caucus that include a quorum of the membership of the Mississippi House of Representatives and that are not purely social must comply with the Open Meetings Act be open to the press and the public.
McDuff argues, as he has previously, that because the House is “a policymaking entity of the State of Mississippi, it is a ‘public body’ covered by the Open Meetings Act.”
“Accordingly, the House Republican Caucus meetings must be open if they contain a majority of the House members and therefore constitute a quorum,” McDuff urges.
The House Republican Caucus has maintained in filings before the Ethics Commission that the House is provided all rule making authority as to its proceedings, arguing that like the judiciary, the Ethics Commission lacks the authority to address and decide how the House conducts its legislative business. Speaker Gunn went further in his previous response to the Ethics Commission, saying the complaints raise nonjusticiable political questions, which Gunn said the Ethics Commission and the courts may not reach without violating the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches.
Speaker Gunn argued that the Open Meetings Act only applies to the Legislature when it is specifically included in the Act, saying that legislative committees are included in the definition of “public bodies.”