The Capitol Press Corp has requested to meet with the House’s Republican Caucus Chair, Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, to discuss an apparent change in policy where journalists are no longer allowed to cover caucus meetings.
“Past practice — especially since Republicans gained supermajority status — has been that the meetings are open unless closed by caucus vote. If that is to change, we think it’s important for both sides to understand the rules of the road going forward,” wrote Chas Sisk, news reporter for WPLN and chairman of the Tennessee Capitol Press Corps, in a letter to Williams.
“…Our fundamental concern is that the Republican caucus, by virtue of its unprecedented size, could act as a de facto legislature, meeting and deliberating in private contrary to the spirit of openness exemplified in the Tennessee Constitution. And although courts have ruled groups of legislators can meet in private, they have never, to our knowledge, affirmed their right to form a quorum outside the public eye.”
Earlier this week, a Tennessean reporter was asked to leave a caucus meeting, in which the topic was largely focused on the state’s budget surplus. The Tennessean reporter was the only member of the media present for the meeting.
An excerpt from the story, “House Republican caucus has rare closed-door meeting”:
At the beginning of the meeting, Williams alluded to the move, saying he wanted the caucus to be able to have an open discussion, which he likened to a family discussing personal matters.
After the meeting, which was the first with Williams presiding over, he defended the move, saying it was necessary to build trust within the caucus.
“When I have members of this caucus who stand up on the House floor and demean other members of this caucus — other family members — then we have a problem. We really need to communicate as a family,” he said. “This is really the only way that kind of fosters that growth and development as a team.”
An appellate court ruled in 2001 in Mayhew v. Wilder that the Tennessee Open Meetings Act did not apply to the General Assembly in a case involving closed door meetings related to the state budget and an income tax proposal. The court reasoned that the constitution allows each House to determine its own rules of proceedings, and that one Legislature can’t bind another with a law.
Even though the Article II, Section 22 of the Tennessee Constitution states that “The doors of each House and of committees of the whole shall be kept open, unless when the business shall be such as ought to be kept secret,” the judges said is at the discretion of the Legislature on what “ought to be kept secret,” not the courts.
Sisk noted in the letter the “perception that lawmakers have a blanket exception from the state open meetings law,” but added that that there are “clear reasons for the caucus to start from a presumption of openness,” including the constitutional principle that every person shall be free “to examine the proceedings of the Legislature” and 200 years of Tennessee history where most legislative meetings have been open.
Sisk wrote in the letter to Williams that “We know you share our commitment to good and clean governance. We know you want transparency and to show Tennesseans that you’re doing their business. We look forward to working with you, and we hope we can figure out a proper balance between your needs as a caucus and ours as Tennessee citizens.”