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Texas open meeting law supported by FAC amicus stands

The Texas Open Meetings Act supported by an FAC amicus brief withstood a constitutional challenge by former city council members who asserted the law violated their rights to exchange e-mail messages discussing city business in secret.

September 10, 2009
After four years of litigation, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Dallas (5th Cir.) today  dismissed Rangra vs. Brown as moot. Although both Alpine, Texas, councilors’ terms had ended, Avinash Rangra remained an active plaintiff in the case. In dismissing the case, 16 judges held Rangra lacked the proper standing to sue, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) reported today.

Earlier this week, FAC filed our own amicus brief written by Rex Heinke and Teresa Wang of the LA office of Akin Gump to defend local government open-meeting laws, like California’s Brown Act, from a potentially devastating national legal challenge.

Rangra v. Brown is a rehearing of an appellate decision that struck down Texas’ open meetings law–which is very similar to CA’s Brown Act–on 1st Amdt grounds. The panel held that the open meetings law, by forcing members of a legislative body to confer in public, abridged their right to speak to each other IN PRIVATE about government business.

FAC argued that the first appellate panel was mistaken to view the Texas open meetings law as a presumptively suspect regulation of speech based on its content. Rather, the brief characterizes the law’s ban on closed meetings as a “content neutral” regulation of the “time, place and manner” of speech.

According to the RCFP article on the case by Corinna Zarek :

“The only judge who dissented in the vote was Judge James L. Dennis, who authored an earlier panel decision holding that open meetings laws must pass a higher constitutional threshold to remain good law and that elected officials should receive full First Amendment protection of speech pursuant to their official duties. That panel decision was vacated when the entire court agreed to review the case.

“Dennis wrote that the full court’s dismissal of the case as moot is “incorrect, injudicious and result oriented.” He said that although Rangra was no longer on city council, he “continues to live under the threat of prosecution and under the damage that was done to him” by the indictment for violating the law. The indictments against Rangra and fellow councilwoman Anna Monclova had been dropped years ago.

“In his dissent, Dennis asserted that this case is “excepted from the mootness doctrine as presenting a ‘wrong capable of repetition yet evading review.'”  He stated the full court’s rationale for dismissing the case was that “it would overtax the judges of this court to prepare for oral argument” and that a “heavy work load never justifies giving short shrift to a case” such as this.

“U.S. District Court Judge Robert Junell in Midland, Texas, upheld the constitutionality of the open meetings law in late 2006, but that decision was overturned in April of this year by a panel on the Fifth Circuit that, in addition to Dennis, included Judges Jacques L. Weiner and Rhesa Hawkins Barksdale — who both agreed that the case was moot in today’s ruling.”

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1 thought on “Texas open meeting law supported by FAC amicus stands

  1. This case is far from cut & dried, it relies entirely on interpretation. The TOMA is, by nature, at odds with the First Amendment rights of public officials. But remove it and we open up for decision-making “behind closed doors.” I personally agree with Judge Dennis’ decision, that the TOMA, and all laws like it, should be held to strict scrutiny to examine if they are “narrowly-crafted” enough to avoid as much 1st Amendment infringement as possible.

  2. This case is far from cut & dried, it relies entirely on interpretation. The TOMA is, by nature, at odds with the First Amendment rights of public officials. But remove it and we open up for decision-making “behind closed doors.” I personally agree with Judge Dennis’ decision, that the TOMA, and all laws like it, should be held to strict scrutiny to examine if they are “narrowly-crafted” enough to avoid as much 1st Amendment infringement as possible.

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