The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -A New Orleans-based federal appeals court has agreed to review a ruling that several state attorneys general warned could cripple their open meetings laws.
A ruling in April by a three-judge panel from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals revived a lawsuit city council members in Alpine, Texas, filed after two members were charged with violating the state's open meetings law. The council members allegedly violated the law by discussing a city project in an exchange of e-mails.
After the ruling, attorneys general for Texas, Louisiana and more than a dozen other states asked for the full 5th Circuit to reconsider the case. Lawyers for the Alpine council members also asked for a rehearing. The court announced this week that a majority of its judges voted to rehear the case.
A state grand jury in Texas indicted two of Alpine's five city council members after they circulated e-mails in 2004 about the hiring of engineers for a city water project before a public hearing. A state judge later dismissed the criminal charges.
In 2005, one of the council members who had been charged ‚ and anotherwho had not ‚ sued to block enforcement of the Texas open meetings law.
The 5th Circuit panel said U.S. District Judge Robert Junell incorrectly ruled that the First Amendment "affords absolutely no protection to speech by elected officials made pursuant to their official duties."
The panel directed Junell to decide whether the Texas Open Meetings Act passes the "strict-scrutiny" test under the First Amendment and "make the state carry its burden of proving that the statute pursues a compelling interest which the law is narrowly tailored to further."
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's office has warned that the panel's ruling could serve as a precedent for striking down many open meetings laws. The list of attorneys general seeking a rehearing also includes those for Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, South Dakota and Virginia.
Rod Ponton III, a lawyer for the Alpine council members who sued, said his clients are asking the full 5th Circuit to declare that the Texas open meetings law is unconstitutional.
"We've always said we want open government and don't want backroom deals, but this law went too far because it keeps public officials from talking about public issues except at public meetings," Ponton said Wednesday.