HELENA – The state Supreme Court has reversed an earlier ruling that made it difficult for individuals to file legal challenges against government agencies that ignore Montana’s open meetings and open records laws.
The 6-0 ruling Thursday says a person can sue an agency for violating the state constitution’s right-to-know and right-to-participate provisions, even if that person doesn’t have a direct personal interest in the matter.
That undoes a 2006 Supreme Court ruling that required a person to first prove he was injured or had a personal stake in the matter before filing a lawsuit over an open government issue. That ruling set a high bar for an individual to challenge an agency that denies access to a meeting or rejects a public record request.
Justice Jim Rice wrote in Thursday’s majority opinion that the 2006 court wrongly applied the general requirement for “standing” – meaning an individual’s ability to bring a lawsuit – to constitutional provisions protecting the people’s right to observe and participate in their government.
“We believe such requirements impose standing thresholds that are incompatible with the nature of the particular constitutional rights at issue,” Rice wrote.
The attorney for Brian Schoof, the plaintiff in the case, said Friday that the new ruling corrects a significant wrong that prevented ordinary citizens from challenging a governmental agency that kicks someone out of a public meeting or denies access to a public record.
“This is huge,” said Mike Meloy, a Helena attorney who specializes in freedom of information cases. “The court has done what’s right.”
Meloy said government agencies have raised the 2006 decision as a defense in past cases he has been involved with in challenging both closed meetings and public records, making it difficult for the public to enforce their rights under the Montana Constitution.
Montana Association of Counties attorney Michael Sehestedt, who represented the defendants, said he was disappointed in the ruling, but it was the court’s precedent to overturn.
“It will be easier for people to sue even if they have no real interest in the matter or never displayed any interest,” he said. “But for people who truly are interested, they probably should have the right to litigate those issues.”
Schoof sued Custer County commissioners over a decision they made allowing them to receive cash payments from the county instead of contributions to their health insurance premiums.
The decision was made during a closed meeting in 2007, and Schoof said he did not learn of it until a deputy county attorney mentioned it during a public meeting four years later.
Schoof claimed the commissioners’ actions violated the state’s open meetings statute, along with the Montana Constitution’s right-to-know and right-to-participate provisions.
A district judge rejected his claims, saying he had no standing to file them and time had run out on a lawsuit.
Schoof appealed, and the Supreme Court in its decision reversed the lower judge’s ruling and ordered further proceedings.