COMMENTARY

Dave Helling | Missouri court acts in secrecy

Updated: 2012-06-06T05:22:03Z

By DAVE HELLING

The Kansas City Star

In politics, as in life, the interesting stuff is often buried in the fine print.

On May 25, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld new district maps for seats in Congress and the Missouri House. The decisions put an end to months of squabbling over who could run for what office in the state.

Inside one of those opinions, though, the court planted three paragraphs of self-serving logic that would be laughable if the result weren’t so significant: The ruling keeps the state redistricting process secret, away from any public accountability.

Missouri’s 163 House districts were actually drawn by six appeals court judges because a governor-appointed commission failed to get the job done. The judges met at least three times in secret, without keeping a record, without notifying the public, without following any of the rules a regular public body would have to follow to draw district boundaries.

Several voters sued, claiming in part that, hey, Missouri has a Sunshine Law so that important decisions such as redistricting are made in, you know, the sunlight, and not behind closed doors.

Nope, the state Supreme Court responded.

The Sunshine Law didn’t apply, it ruled, because the six-judge panel was a “judicial entity,” not a public body. By itself, that isn’t enough: Even judicial entities have to open their meetings in Missouri if they’re involved in “administrative” matters instead of actual court cases.

So the court further declared the redistricting judges were really performing a “legislative function,” not an administrative one.

Of course, panels actually performing legislative functions in Missouri are by definition public bodies and therefore open to the public. So to complete the circle, the court said no, the panel is really a judicial entity, not a legislative one, even though it, um, legislated.

Presto! Secret meetings are OK.

Apparently, when legislators make laws we have a right to watch. When judges make laws we can all just go away.

The fight to conduct the public’s business in public is crucial and never-ending, and judges are sometimes the most secret of all politicians. U.S. Supreme Court justices recently banned video cameras from oral arguments over health care reform, apparently afraid their smart-aleck questions would look bad if people could actually see them.

And their decision on Obamacare has already been made — in secret. We’ll know the results later this month, but beyond the written opinions we’ll have no clue how the justices decided the case.

The Missouri Supreme Court had a chance in May to endorse public accountability and transparency in redistricting. Instead, it decided it’s perfectly okay to shut the public out.

The legislature can and should reverse that decision before the next redistricting in 2022.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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