Friday, September 11, 2009

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Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Dismisses Constitutional Challenge to Texas Open Meetings Act

AUSTIN – The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit dismissed a lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA). Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott defended the Act, arguing that the lawsuit filed by former Alpine city council members Avinash Rangra and Anna Monclova (Rangra and Monclova v. Brown and Abbott) is now moot. The court’s en banc panel late Thursday agreed and dismissed the case as moot by a 16-1 vote.

“Open, transparent government is fundamental to our democratic system of government,” Attorney General Abbott said. “The Texas Open Meetings Act ensures that elected officials conduct the taxpayers’ business in the light of day and in a manner that informs the public about government decision-making. Texans have a right to know about their government, their elected representatives and the policies that are being adopted on the public’s behalf.”

Media links
Attorney General's Open Meetings Act Brief

“The en banc ruling marks an important victory for the state,” said Solicitor General James Ho, lead counsel for the appellees in the case. “It protects the fundamental principle of open government in Texas, and it preserves our federal court victory upholding the Texas Open Meetings Act.”

In addition to defending TOMA against constitutional challenge, the brief filed by Attorney General Abbott in late August also argued that the case became moot when the plaintiffs left office. It argued that “only a ‘member of a governmental body’ covered by TOMA can commit a crime under the Act—an ordinary citizen cannot.” The brief explained that TOMA no longer applies to either plaintiff, because Monclova vacated her council seat in May 2006 and Rangra left the council in May 2009. The court’s decision confirmed the attorney general’s argument and dismissed the case.

Rangra was indicted in February 2005 for violating TOMA after sending 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.

Rangra and Monclova, however, 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 Fifth Circuit court later sent the case back to the trial court to review TOMA under a stricter standard of review. The three-judge panel ruling was vacated in July when the entire Court decided to rehear the case at Attorney General Abbott’s request. Thursday’s opinion leaves intact the district court ruling that supported TOMA’s constitutionality.

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.