Ethics Commission could rule by year end if they, in fact, have jurisdiction. Read the complaints from the media outlet and responses by the House GOP, Speaker Gunn below.
The Mississippi Legislature is set to return to the Capitol in just over four months, yet the issue of whether House Republican Caucus meetings should be subject to the Open Meetings Act remains unsettled by the state Ethics Commission.
This saga began on March 4, 2022, when State Senator Sollie Norwood, a Democrat, using the Open Meetings Act as a backdrop and amid a heated session where Senate and House leadership significantly differed on major legislation, namely the elimination of the income tax, asked the Mississippi Ethics Commission if it is lawful for a political caucus that represents a majority in a legislative chamber to exclude from its meetings any member of that chamber when business of the full body is discussed or decided during that caucus meeting. This was aimed at Speaker Gunn’s use of Republican caucus meetings, a regular practice that dates back to the state’s earliest days irrespective of the party in power.
Just over an hour later, Ethics Commission Executive Director Tom Hood responded to Norwood’s question, stating that the Commission had no authority to issue advisory opinions about the Open Meetings Act as it does under the Ethics in Government Law. Hood added that such a question would need to be directed to the Attorney General’s office. Senator Norwood later told Y’all Politics that he had no intention of making a request on the matter to the AG.
Then, on March 14, Mississippi Free Press reporter Nick Judin was escorted out of a House Republican Caucus gathering after he attempted to stay in the room when the caucus planned to meet. That rejection of Judin’s attendance was amplified as his outlet and others generated newly found hysteria and outrage, posting articles on the issue on the same day, March 21, a week later.
Judin’s effort was couched as an attempt to paint Speaker Gunn and House Republicans as violating the Open Meetings Act when such caucus meetings have never been subject to those parameters.
On March 24, Judin filed a complaint (shown below) with the Ethics Commission stating that “Speaker Philip Gunn and the House Republican Caucus are barring access to the official meetings of a public body engaged in the shaping of public policy in violation of the Open Meetings Act…”
Since then, Mississippi Free Press has engaged Mississippi Center for Justice attorney Rob McDuff to act on their behalf before the Ethics Commission, filing their own complaint on April 12. McDuff, as you may recall, was recently the attorney for Jackson Women’s Health Organization in their failed attempt to challenge the state’s trigger law that banned abortion following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Dobbs case which overturned Roe v. Wade.
McDuff’s complaint for Mississippi Free Press Commission requests relief, stating that the Commission should issue an order requiring Speaker Gunn and the House Republican Caucus to comply with the Open Meetings Act and open its meetings to the press and the public.
However, Speaker Gunn and the House Republican Caucus disagree. Both Gunn and the GOP Caucus submitted filings to the Ethics Commission on May 20.
House Republican Caucus Response
Speaker Gunn Response
The House Republican Caucus is being represented by Kenna Mansfield and Kelly Simpkins of Wells Marbles & Hurst PLLC. The caucus filed a motion to dismiss the complaint stating that the Mississippi Constitution commits to the House the decision as to when legislative business should be conducted in closed sessions, adding that the House is provided all rule making authority as to its proceedings.
“Accordingly, the question as to whether legislative business should be conducted in open or closed sessions is a procedural question,” the GOP caucus filing claims. “Simply put, the procedural workings of the Legislature are off-limits.”
The House Republicans state that just like the judiciary, the Ethics Commission lacks the authority to address and decide how the House conducts its legislative business.
Speaker Gunn concurs with the House Republican Caucus’ filings and writes in his response that the complaints raise nonjusticiable political questions, which Gunn says the Ethics Commission and the courts may not reach without violating the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches.
Just as he has maintained throughout this saga, Gunn writes that the Open Meetings Act does not apply to the Legislature as a whole or to any other group of House members that comprises a majority of members.
Speaker Gunn notes that the Open Meetings Act only applies to the Legislature when it is specifically included in the Act, saying that legislative committees are included in the definition of “public bodies.” Gunn goes on to state that an official meeting of the House is only when members are gathered in a “properly convened session.”
For now, the Ethics Commission is awaiting a rebuttal from Judin and Mississippi Free Press to the House Republican Caucus and Speaker Gunn responses. That rebuttal is expected by the end of the month.
Ethics Commission Executive Director Hood says once that rebuttal is received, the Commission could take the matter up in September or October in hopes of having it resolved by the end of the year and ahead of the 2023 legislative session.
You can review the Ethics complaints in full below.
Original Ethics Complaint by Judin
Mississippi Free Press Complaint by McDuff