The Mississippi Supreme Court’s landmark ruling on open meetings and the state College Board is 30 years old this year.
The ruling removed any doubt the constitutionally created public bodies — including the state College Board — must comply with the Open Meeting Act.
Justice Lenore Prather wrote in the 1985 unanimous decision: “The open meeting legislation is no intrusion into the decision-making power of the board. The Open Meetings Act was enacted for the benefit of the public and is to be construed liberally in favor of the public.”
Will Bardwell, a Jackson attorney and president of the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information, said the Open Meetings Act was “running straight into the wind of a long-existing culture of government secrecy, and the law was going to be only as powerful as the Supreme Court made it.”
“This decision was the moment when the Open Meetings Act grew teeth,” Barwell told The Associated Press in an email.
Then why are some local and state boards still struggling with the concept?
The Mississippi Ethics Commission’s website lists more than two dozen actions it has taken on complaints over open meeting issues. The complaints have involved school boards, city and county boards and state boards and commissions.
Among them were three rulings addressed “rolling quorums” and faulted the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors, the mayor and board of aldermen of Yazoo City, and the Columbus City Council for splitting meetings into groups of less than a quorum to avoid letting the public in.
Bardwell said that advocates of open meetings are still facing a lot of the same issues that the Supreme Court addressed. He said what the decision did was give open government advocates some great tools to use.
“Ideally, this anniversary would be an occasion for open government advocates to rededicate themselves to the idea of taking these conflicts to court. As the Board of Trustees case illustrates, litigation does more than solve just your problem. It also can result in precedent that can be used as ammunition many years later,” Bardwell said.
“Unfortunately, the Mississippi Supreme Court hasn’t had occasion to invoke the Board of Trustees decision in more than 10 years, and that’s because these sorts of fights just aren’t taken to court very often anymore. I’d like to see that change,” Bardwell said.
The College Board lawsuit was filed in 1983 by the owners of the Jackson newspapers.
It was a turbulent time for higher education. The college desegregation lawsuit was filed by Jake Ayers Sr. in 1975. How the College Board was addressing desegregating higher education was discussed behind closed doors with reporters camped outside. Closed meetings became standard practice — and became the basis of the lawsuit.
Every monthly meeting was the same. College Board members would scatter after a meeting, sometimes ducking out back doors to beat reporters to elevators. The chases were reminiscent of the Keystone Kops of the silent movie era.
The College Board’s argument was that, as a constitutionally created board with constitutional and statutory mandates to govern the universities, their constitutional duties conflict with the requirement of the Open Meeting Law. The board argued it could ignore the law in order for it to effectively function and perform its constitutional duty.
The Supreme Court acknowledged the board was given some constitutional status to remove it from political interference but not to make it a separate branch of government.
“Nor is the Board’s power to manage and control unconstitutionally infringed upon, interfered with, or diminished by submission to the requirement of open meetings; openness, however, may make its duty less convenient or pleasant,” Prather said.
» Jack Elliott covers the state of Mississippi for The Associated Press