Monday, August 31, 2009

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Attorney General Greg Abbott Takes Legal Action to Defend Open Meetings Act

AUSTIN – Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott today took legal action to defend the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA) from a legal challenge to its constitutionality. Former Alpine city council members Avinash Rangra and Anna Monclova have filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of penalties that TOMA imposes on government officials who violate open meetings laws. On September 24, Solicitor General James Ho will defend the law during an oral argument before the full 17-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

In February 2005, Rangra was indicted for violating TOMA. According to local prosecutors, Rangra sent e-mails to a quorum of the Alpine City Council. Because those e-mails discussed official government business, Rangra was charged with conducting an illegal, closed meeting. The charge was later dropped. However, Rangra and Monclova subsequently challenged TOMA in federal court, claiming the law violates the First Amendment. Their lawsuit sought an injunction preventing TOMA’s enforcement. The federal district court rejected the lawsuit, but a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit later sent the case back to the trial court to review TOMA under a stricter standard of review. In response, Attorney General Abbott asked the Fifth Circuit court to accept the case for rehearing before the entire court.

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Attorney General's Open Meetings Act brief

In a brief that was filed today, the Attorney General argues that TOMA furthers, rather than frustrates, fundamental First Amendment values. “Elected officials work for the people. They do not have a First Amendment right against the very people they serve. They suffer no actionable First Amendment injury from being required to conduct public business in public, rather than in secret, to the exclusion of the voters who elected them to office in the first place,” the brief states. “In short, open meeting laws expand, not suppress, communication. Such laws do not limit public discourse—they broaden it. … Open government is precisely what the First Amendment envisions, not condemns.”

The Attorney General’s brief also argues: “Like virtually every open meeting law across the country, . . . the Texas Open Meetings Act is based on a simple premise: Because the decisions of governmental bodies are made not on behalf of the members themselves, but on behalf of the people they serve, the people have a right to view the decision-making process.”

In addition to defending TOMA’s constitutionality, the brief argues that the court should dismiss the case because it is moot. The brief argues that Rangra and Monclova lack standing in the case because they are no longer city council members and, as a result, are no longer subject to the act’s penalties.

To learn more about the Office of the Attorney General’s efforts to ensure openness in government, visit the agency’s Web site at www.texasattorneygeneral.gov.